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April 2013

Paralympic football-2
29th April 2013

This was a must win match for team GB, and they lost it. They didn’t even come close - which might have been a bit of a relief for masochists accustomed to the way England teams make heart-breaking exits from major competitions but signally failed to subdue a boisterous, shirt-sleeved crowd at the Riverbank Stadium.

Lord Coe, chairman of  the organizing committee for the Games, had to pick his words carefully when asked at half-time to gauge what effect might have on a GB side already 4-0 down  against the double Paralympic champions from Ukraine. ‘You’re making this theatre happen” he  assured a nowhere-near capacity crowd .”Thank you for that”

The crowd did their best to, as the clichés would have it, turn it into a game of two halves, give it a hundred and ten  per cent for the gaffer (of Locog ) and, at the end of the day, nick a result . They stamped their feet in the stands, upped the volume and the frequency of their chants of “GB,GB” , roared their approval of an early second-half goal by substitute Ibz Diallo and interrupted a Mexican wave to boo the referee for daring to yellow card GB captain Matt Dimbylow.

Their efforts were about as useful as the stadium floodlights which continued ibizarrelyto blaze down from the pylons at each corner of the ground. The reason, we were told, was to make the conditions equal for all teams involved in the competition no matter what time of day they played. And, in a not very convincing explanation of why the lights were on throughout Sunday’s rest day, when they trained as well.

Beating Ukraine was always going to be Mission Impossible. GB coach Lyndon Lynch was convinced that while the Ufrainian squad had been together for over a decade – during which they won gold at both Athens and Beijing – his players had been together as a squad for less than a Paralympiad cycle. The Ukrainians were full-time professionals, like the Russians and the Iranians in the other qualifying group ,  but unlike the Britons among whose number was a Marks and Spencer’s employee Michael Barker and a Disabled School assistant, Martin Sinclair.

All the British players came to Lynch  through a regional system which Lynch couldn’t bring himself to fault. ‘The FA have been fantastic .  They’ve let me have more access to the players players in the last 12 months than I could ever have imagined, but to compete with Russia and Ukraine I need more.”

What Lynch craves above anything else, though, is more competition. ‘The next international tournament isn’t until October 2013, and we need to play before that. That way I can not only blood some more youngsters but also sort out their classification”

Paralympic footballers are classified from  C5 ,at the most disabled end of  their particular spectrum, to C8 where athletes generally suffer most from involuntary muscle contractions as well as a tightness in their limbs.There has to be at least one  C5 or C6 on the field at all times and no more than two C8s, though, apart from the odd peculiarities of gait, running style or posture, they give few suggestions to the watcher in the stand of any disability whatsoever.

Ukraine sprayed precise passes around the field from the whistle and snatched the lead  through captain Volodymyr Antoniuk inside a minute while all team GB  had managed was a botched throw in. 4-0 up in less than fifteen minutes , Ukraine  could afford to squander a few chances during GB’S best period but still signed off with 3 more goals to take their two-match tally to 16 and guarantee a semi-final place against the losers of Wednesday’s match between Russia and Iran .

GB  have a final group match to look forward to against the USA, beaten 8-0 by Brazil earlier in the day, before the play-offs for the minor places on Friday and Sunday.

They’re already planning for Rio  and determined to learn the lessons of London . “ We  honestly fancied our chances against the Ukraine” insists defender Martin Sinclair, “but they were just better on the ball. We made too many mistakes but we never gave up. We just weren’t competing on level terms” 

According to Lynch team GB is already on the right track. We’ve got great support from the Premier League clubs” he insists.” Most of them have their own disabled football sections and while Spurs have lent their training facilities and West Ham have loaned their doctor, the likes of Manchester United and Everton have been very helpful. What we need is more international competition and more money to allow our players to go full time.”

In the meantime they can only look on in envy  as Iran, Russia and the Ukraine converge on gold this Sunday.