By Ignacio Estefanell
You can’t just expect success. It takes blood, sweat, tears and a bit of luck.- Drew Ferguson
Looking at the knock knees of the kids around him, the expression that comes into Drew Ferguson’s mind is “pigeon-toed”. In time, he will learn to distinguish between the various types of disabilities but, in 2005, as he rides the bus to coach at his first Para Soccer training camp, terms such as “hemiplegic” and “diplegic” have not yet become a part of his vocabulary. And as he stared at all the awkwardly shaped limbs on that bus, Ferguson wondered whether he truly belonged.
With black, greying hair, blue eyes and a slight paunch, despite a lifetime of physical exercise, Ferguson is a former national soccer team member who helped Canada qualify for its sole World Cup appearance (Mexico, 1986). This experience, along with a lengthy playing career followed by coaching experience at the club and provincial levels, is the reason Canada Soccer tapped him to lead its Para Soccer program.
Today Ferguson, who is 57 and hails from Powell River, B.C., is quick to admit his initial ignorance: “I didn’t know what cerebral palsy was. I might have it, for all I knew. Some of those kids couldn’t walk, let alone play soccer. When they got off that bus, one of them took a nosedive. He just slipped, covering his training suit in mud.” For Canada’s new Para Soccer coach, this was a memorable introduction to his squad.
Running the Para team has given Ferguson a second chance to grace the world’s stage. Despite initial doubts, the kids’ attitude kept him going. “I don’t have time for the antics of the modern athlete. Most are spoiled and don’t appreciate what they have. But my guys don’t lie and roll around waiting for the cameras. They have a disability and they get up and get on with it, even after getting hit. I like that.”
The search for players
But Ferguson also likes winning, and that wasn’t happening. “We were ranked off the map and would often get spanked seven or eight to zero.” Desperate for players Ferguson and his assistant, Doug Lusk, a high school guidance counsellor from Aylmer,
Ontario, would often chase people with CP on the streets to see if they were interested in trying out for the national team.
Lusk, chubby with curly, blond hair and blue eyes is the good cop to Ferguson’s bad. He’s the shoulder that players cry on partially because of his humour, but also because he takes an active interest in CP—enrolling in courses and learning from his wife, a physiotherapist who works with kids with disabilities.
In the early days, Lusk would travel to CP events, carrying a soccer ball to see if anyone was interested in playing. But neither these searches nor Ferguson’s outreach attempts produced the desired results.
The pair had more luck after deciding to begin contacting CP athletes involved in other sports. And with the help of these new recruits, the program saw results, winning a bronze at the 2007 Parapan American Games. But Ferguson wasn’t satisfied: “That victory was a spark. It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re suddenly good, let’s keep at it.’”
But what else could Ferguson do? He was already on the road 100 days a year, going to events and scouting. His squad now contained some of the best CP athletes in Canada; and yet their next game was a 5-0 loss to Argentina. The problem was that Ferguson, in contrast to his competition, was trying to teach his guys a sport that most, until now, had never played.
What he realized was that “his guys” aren’t part of the disability scene. They’re hiding, either trying to blend in or simply going unnoticed by the able-bodied world. He needed to shift his priorities from training people with disabilities to play soccer, to finding soccer players who happened to have a disability.
But getting his message out to coaches, clubs and soccer associations has not been easy. One big challenge: CP can be difficult to detect, especially when coaches are unfamiliar with it: “These coaches are like me, when a player walks funny they don’t think disability, they think the guy has a bad ankle.”
Plus, many CP players don’t want to be found, says Ferguson, “Especially if doctors or parents are afraid to label them. However, we want to label them because we’ve got this massive opportunity to come and represent their country.”
With CP affecting one out of every 500 Canadians, Ferguson says, “there has to be at least a couple hundred quality players out there.” As proof, he points to Samuel Charron who, at 15, is one of his youngest and best players. Although his CP is mild, his parents kept it quiet. So even though Charron grew up playing competitive soccer, his own coaches weren’t aware of his condition until Ferguson spotted Charron, by chance, on a field in Ottawa.
One of the few tells, says Lusk, is the sound of his walk: “You see, an able-bodied person steps heel to toe, but Sammy’s right foot goes toe to heel—as is common with most people with CP—because he can’t lift it properly, so the clunk is different.”
Ferguson estimates that it will take 20 years to build the Para program. It can be hard for new players to adjust because most haven’t come up through the competitive ranks. They’re not used to being told to lose those extra pounds or hearing motivational expletives.
Team captain Dustin Hodgson admits Ferguson took some getting used to: “I was playing on teams run by fathers who would say, ‘Good try, keep it up,’ but Drew doesn’t hold back. If he wants to express something he will and you will hear it—even if you’re on the other side of the field.”
Ferguson, however, offers no apologies: “I don’t treat my guys as people with disabilities; I treat them as soccer players, because that’s what they are. I may crucify them, but I also give them a pat on the back when a job is well done. At the end of the day, it’s about respect and it has to go both ways.”
And while Hodgson admits the first few years were hard, he’s happy he didn’t quit: “Drew is the best coach I’ve ever had. Yes, he’s rough around the edges, but he’s made me a better player and given me coaching that I would never have otherwise received.”
A different world
But the players aren’t the only ones learning. Following a training session, Ferguson recounts one of his more enlightening experiences: “We were at Chula Vista, San Diego, and one day I grew frustrated and surly. So I pointed to the five perfectly kept fields and said, ‘You guys need to stop picking your noses and work on your shooting.’”
The next morning, Ferguson found three players sitting on a bench surrounded by balls. After staring for a few minutes from across the field, he finally approached them: “What are you clowns doing?”
“Well, Coach, you were pretty mad yesterday,” responded one of the players. “So we decided to start training early, but as we sat down we realized we’re screwed.”
“Excuse me,” said Ferguson, following their eyes to their boots, before finally catching on: “I had to turn around to keep from laughing. I mean, what do you say when the only three guys who actually listened can’t tie their cleats because their CP is so bad.”
These are challenges that able-bodied coaches don’t encounter, says Lusk. “How do you coach kids that [in some cases] can only strike the ball with the outside of their left foot? Coming up with drills and strategies to accommodate this can keep you up at night.”
There are also different rules to consider. For one, international CP soccer takes place on a smaller field. As a result, teams consist of seven players, instead of 11. The nets are also smaller, and when the ball goes out of bounds, players who have difficulty throwing are allowed to roll it back into play.
The result is a quick, pass-and-move style of soccer, requiring a combination of fitness and technical ability. But there is one more fundamental difference with the able-bodied game: CP players are ranked according to the severity of their disability. Those with paralysis in symmetrical body parts are classified as CP5s. Players with milder forms of CP–usually those affected on only one side of their body–are classified as either CP6s or CP7s.
And then there are kids who don’t have CP, but because of a stroke or head injury have similar symptoms. They’re classified as CP8s. Currently a maximum of two CP8s are allowed on the field, while at least one CP5 must be on at all times In 2017, this will change to one CP8 and two CP5s. These rules add an additional strategic element not present in able-bodied soccer.
Ferguson avoids getting close to his players because he needs to see them as investments. With limited resources, he has to choose which ones to support and, should their level drop, which ones to cut.
Players like Charron, who Ferguson believes has the potential to become one of the best CP soccer players in the world, are changing the team’s culture. For the first time, older, more established players must fight for their positions. And while it can be hard to let players go, Ferguson says, the experience remains rewarding for all. “They all end up growing, not just in their abilities, but as people. Listen, these guys travel around the world; it’s not a bad gig.”
Despite his efforts, there are barriers that Ferguson has not overcome. For one, “It costs European nations $2,000 to run a training camp, but [since Canada is a larger country, with only one direct neighbour] it costs us $40,000 just to get all of our guys together for four days, and even more to cross the Atlantic to attend a tournament. It’s hard to prepare the team technically when I can only afford to see the entire group four times a year.”
The second obstacle is even harder to confront. That’s because it’s not tangible like money, but something hidden, woven into the nation’s social fabric.
You can see its reflection in the international rankings. While traditional soccer powers like Brazil and the Netherlands are in the top five, they don’t lead the way. Russia occupies top spot, followed by Ukraine, and in fifth, the biggest surprise, Iran. Why? Because, according to Ferguson, “these countries allow their sport programs to access hospital records, so they don’t have any problems identifying players.”
The Russians, in particular, says Ferguson, “not only train together, but are required to attend the same school.” As a result, “these guys have a team of 25 Sammys, except they’re fully grown.”
The Dutch also send their players to select schools for kids with disabilities. In fact, their coach doesn’t have to scour the country to identify talent, like Ferguson does, because, as a former gym teacher at one of these schools, he already knows the players. It’s a big advantage, says Lusk, “but we would never think of doing this in Canada, because it’s segregation. Our school system is about inclusion; it’s a different mindset. One is not right, one is not wrong; it’s just a social difference.”
But it’s a difference that has put Canada at a disadvantage when it comes to Para Soccer. Ferguson, however, refuses to concede defeat. He believes that even this disadvantage, can be moderated by raising awareness—his panacea.
And with the Parapan American Games taking place on home soil in less than a year, Ferguson believes it’s time to seize the spotlight. This tournament (July 10-26,
2014), held in Toronto, marks the first time the program will play in front of a large home crowd.
And if Canada performs well at this tournament, it will go into the 2015 World Championships with confidence, bolstering its chances of securing a place at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. This would be Ferguson’s dream come true, because it would not only mean increased media, but additional federal funding.
Ferguson and Lusk celebrate this possibility with a swig of water as they exit the training field. “Yeah, hopefully we can qualify,” says Ferguson, finishing his gulp.“Look, I’ve already had my career, I don’t have many ambitions left; my soccer world has been good. But it would be nice to sit back when I’m 80—heck, I don’t want to live that long—
and know that we’ve left a legacy.”
Ignacio Estefanell is a soccer enthusiast, founder of Kickabout (Ottawa’s local soccer magazine) and the communications coordinator for Canada Soccer.