Inside the United States’ Amputee Soccer World Cup campaign

ISTANBUL — Dr. Eric Lamberg gathers his players together. “All right guys, you hear that?” the coach asks. “That was a shock. Everybody’s shocked. You guys just took down England!” There are cheers, applause and crutches hoisted into the air in celebration from the assembled players and staff of the United States’ national amputee soccer team. “And you looked good doing it. Where’s our goal scorer? Musa!”

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Eighteen-year-old striker Musa Nzirimwo scored the goal that got the United States’ Amputee Soccer World Cup campaign up and running, but he nearly wasn’t there at all. Not only because as a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo he lost his leg kicking a hand grenade that he thought was a ball, but because his status as a refugee with residency in the U.S. meant he only secured a visa to enter Turkey to compete in the tournament with just a few days to spare. But here he was, running on to a perfectly weighted through ball from team captain Nico Calabria — who helped recruit Nzirimwo for the team — to give the Americans a crucial 1-0 win.

This is the world of amputee soccer, the volunteer-led sport in which players are either born with a limb difference or have undergone an amputation, where their personal stories might well inspire others but pale into insignificance when there is the serious business of representing your country at a World Cup and victory is on the line.

“Ultimately, we want to get past that, so it’s not all, ‘Wow, isn’t it great that they’re still playing, it’s so inspirational,'” Calabria told ESPN. “It’s more like we’ve overcome challenges, now look at the way we can play, the athleticism, the competitiveness. I try to steer away from the inspiration side of the story because, honestly, I’m sick of hearing it.”

Staged Sept. 30 to Oct. 9, the 2022 World Cup — the 17th to be held since the first in Seattle in 1984 and fifth to be organised by the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) — was, in participation terms, the biggest in the sport’s 40-year history. It was the first to have so many national teams vying for a place at the finals that regional qualifiers were held to whittle the 48 original entrants down to the 24 teams that made it to Turkey. Like many disability sports, amputee soccer is constantly battling for exposure to earn more funding and investment to continue its growth. A lot of people may not have heard of it before, but once you see it played for the first time you won’t forget it.

The seven-a-side game, played over two 25-minute halves on a field three-quarters the size of a regulation soccer pitch, can be rough and physical. The six outfielders can move at speed using their one complete leg and a pair of titanium forearm crutches, and while sliding tackles are not allowed, there are plenty of powerful challenges and collisions that result in one or both players hitting the ground, often landing on each other or their sticks. The players do get plenty of chance to recover, if need be, as coaches can make unlimited rolling substitutions.

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“It’s a very physical game, more so than what we would see in able-bodied soccer, as many times the sticks are hitting people and creating different kinds of bruises that are a little bit longer lasting,” Lamberg said.

As Calabria added, “Largely it’s the same, except you’re just giving all these dudes weapons, and they’re battling with them out there. It’s pretty physical and intense. I leave most games with bloodied knuckles, and people get bumped and bruised pretty bad. There’s a lot of falling.”

The goalkeepers, the only players with two fully functioning legs but with a limb difference in one arm, are not allowed out of their penalty area — doing so leads to a penalty kick for the opposition — and they must defend their goal (which, at 7 feet by 16 feet, is slightly wider than a field hockey goal) with their amputated arm strapped to their side.

“Because there are lot of differences between the goalkeepers with their amputated arm — how long or thick it is, for example — we have to strap it to our body,” England goalkeeper Kieran Lambourne said. “So diving on your weaker side is a lot harder to learn. You get quite a few bruises and bumps on your shoulder and arms, which isn’t great.”

A lot of goals come from set pieces in amputee soccer due to the frequent free kicks awarded for fouls and “handballs” — when the ball hits a player’s arm or crutch in an unnatural position — and the kick-ins used to restart play from the sidelines.

“In general, it has a choppier pace than traditional soccer,” Calabria said. “But it depends on the game and the team and the style.”

U.S. player Vincent Fischer, center, looks on as assistant coach Fabian Soldevilla, right, helps Nico Calabria with his crutches in the locker room before a match. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Lamberg, 48, is responsible for the U.S. team’s playing style but, like so many in the sport, he holds more than one role: He has been head coach since 2014, but he also became president of the American Amputee Soccer Association (AASA) two years ago.

“We have two missions as an organisation: one is to compete at the most elite level, but the other is to grow and find all these players and develop them; they’re polar opposites,” he said. “It’s really hard to do both of those things well because you can’t put resources into one and not the other.”

A tenured full professor in the physical therapy department and associate dean for New York’s School of Health Professions at Stony Brook University on his native Long Island, Lamberg spends much of his spare time raising funds and mapping out the future of the sport in his country. With no regular financial backing from the government or from U.S. Soccer for this World Cup, the AASA relies on sponsors and donors to keep running; and this year, it had a successful drive to raise $200,000 to fund the campaign. On the development side, there are hopes that burgeoning tie-ups with several Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs can help overcome the difficulty of running an amateur sport across such a large country.

While participation is growing, many people are unaware of the sport’s existence, making it is a challenge for the U.S. to find potential new players. In theory, it’s just an internet search away, but most involved with the U.S. squad found amputee soccer through a chance encounter with someone who was already involved with the game.

“This goalkeeper grew up without an arm,” Lamberg said, giving one recent example. “He played high school soccer as a goalie with one arm. His local newspaper wrote an article about him. It wasn’t until about nine months ago that he even knew we existed, and we never knew he existed. There’s definitely more people like him across the U.S.”

Any exposure the team gets can be crucial in attracting new funds. Each training camp costs up to $20,000 to put on, and the U.S. had one every month since qualifying in March in the run-up to the World Cup. It cost $40,000 just to get the squad of 15 players and 11 support staff over to Turkey, and that’s before the other private contributions that players and their families make.

Members of the U.S. team pose during the opening ceremony of the Amputee World Cup at Istanbul’s Sukru Saracoglu Stadium. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

The 2022 World Cup presented the opportunity for Lamberg not only to mark his own side’s progress against the best international teams but to learn more about what could be possible in the future from those nations with bigger resources, such as host nation Turkey.

“They are the trailblazers of the sport ahead of everybody else,” said England head coach Owen Coyle Jr., who fits his eight-hour, 500-mile round-trips by car to the national team’s training sessions around his day job as a first-team coach at Scottish Championship side Queen’s Park, where he works under his father, former Bolton, Blackburn and Houston Dynamo coach Owen Coyle Sr. “The Turkish government and football federation invest a lot of money into amputee football. There are a lot of ex-military personnel who play within the national team. They are very patriotic, as a country, and they’re very passionate about football. So when you to align those key components of their values as a country, then it starts to stack up that they are going to heavily fund it.”

Coyle, 26, has first-hand experience of facing such a powerhouse. His England team lost to Turkey 2-1 in the final of the European Championship in Istanbul five years ago in front of over 40,000 fans at Vodafone Park in the Besiktas district. In England’s recent series of three World Cup warm-up games against Turkey, they lost all three.

England is one of a handful of countries that has a national league, with teams affiliated to Premier League clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal via their charitable foundations. In Turkey, however, the game is played professionally with 30 clubs and almost 600 registered players across three divisions, meaning the gap between them and the rest is stark. “The best way to describe it would probably be an FA Cup clash between a seventh-tier side and a Premier League side in terms of the difference in resources,” Coyle said.

Boosted by a big advertising campaign urging local residents to support the “Korkusuzlar” (“Fearless ones”) but hampered by a new government requirement for fans to preregister online for tickets, 10,000 fans were at Fenerbahce’s 27,150-capacity Sukru Saracoglu stadium on a Friday night. They got to see Turkish pop star Derya Ulug perform before the hosts began their quest to avenge their penalty shootout loss to Angola in the 2018 World Cup final by comfortably beating France 3-0 in the opening match.

“I didn’t expect the fans to be so loud,” said Kavi Pandya, one of the youngest members of the U.S. squad, who was watching the game. “Whenever Turkey scored a goal, they were yelling right at our faces!”

Despite being due to play each other in their opening game the following day, the U.S. and England teams had to share a ride to the opening ceremony from the hotel where they and 12 other teams were all staying. The atmosphere on the journey through the city to the stadium on an open-top bus with a police escort was calm and cordial — despite a prematch graphic posted on the U.S. team’s social channels having to be hastily deleted because it featured the Union Flag of the United Kingdom, rather than the St. George Cross of England. But after everyone had been in the stadium for more than four hours, the trip back was more raucous as the England group sang Oasis songs and chanted terrace anthems, trying to get their upcoming opponents to join in.

“I know those songs, but I’m not going to sing them,” U.S. veteran player Robert Ferguson said. “I prefer Skillet, ‘The Finish Line.'”

U.S. player Robert Ferguson, left, laughs with teammate Jason Evans on the bus back from training. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Ferguson is approaching his last tournament playing for the U.S., but he is in no doubt over how important the team has been to him after losing his right leg in 2009 while serving in the armed forces. “I actually survived two tours of Afghanistan — physically, not mentally — but this actually happened at Fort Hood, Texas,” he said. “On a training mission I went between the driver sprocket and the track of a 20-ton rocket launcher, and I woke up two days later.”

Surgeons gave him the choice of whether to save the leg or not but, given the level of infection, Ferguson opted for an amputation. The 43-year-old — who played semi-professional football while stationed at an air base in Germany — hit a low point as he struggled to come to terms with his new reality, but finding amputee soccer seven years later set him on a new path.

“I was drinking myself to sleep to avoid nightmares,” he said. “I was in a bad place. And then, this sport literally saved my life. The lady I was dating at the time asked if I wanted to go kick a ball around, because I couldn’t even watch soccer anymore … and I said fine, but I won’t touch the pitch. She said: ‘That’s fine, you can run around the track.’ But I couldn’t stay off the pitch.

“It just so happened that Keith Johnson, the goalie for the U.S. Cerebral Palsy soccer team, trained at those fields, and he saw a woman carrying a prosthetic leg from the truck out to the field. He came to talk to me and asked if I’d ever heard of amputee soccer, and I just kind of looked at myself and said, ‘Do I look like I’ve ever heard of amputee soccer?’ He put me in touch with the U.S. guys, and six months later I was in California playing against Haiti.”

Ferguson may be done playing for the national team, but he will continue to do handcycle marathons, and he is planning to do a 135-mile kayak trip down the Colorado River to raise money for veteran suicide awareness.

“I was almost a stat,” he said. “My service dog pulled a shotgun out of my mouth one night.

“I’m not on my painkillers anymore. I don’t drink really, except when I get with my Army buddies once a year. Now I run the largest regional team in the United States.”

England’s David Tweed, front left, walks with teammates toward the locker room before their first game of the Amputee World Cup against the United States. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

The next morning, the whole tournament decamps to Riva, a small town on the Black Sea about an hour north of Istanbul. There, at the Turkish Football Federation’s impressive, purpose-built training facility, up to 12 games a day during the group stage will be played across seven pitches. However, the U.S.’s locker room in the main building is so far from pitch 2B that Lamberg decides not to use it for his team talk. Instead, he assembles his players inside a large dome that is shaped like a soccer ball. The red-and-white metal panels covered in stars on the roof could be tailor-made for an American coach giving a prematch speech, and it is where Lamberg tells his players: “When I look around, the first thing I see in our team is diversity — in race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, age. It sets you guys apart, but also it makes you realise that you cannot do this alone.”

Here at Riva, there are no terraces full of thousands of fans, just a few dozen supporters, most of whom are rooting for the U.S. They watch the two teams play out a tough, physical match which is low on clear-cut chances and could go either way. David Tweed, England’s captain and all-time top scorer with over 100 goals, holds the ball up and links play well but is unable to get past U.S. defender Keith Mann, while for all Jamie Tregaskiss’ many long dribbling runs down the left, the Manchester City forward is unable to test goalkeeper Travis Oliva.

England goalkeeper Kieran Lambourne prepares to stop the ball during the team’s first game of the Amputee World Cup against the U.S. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

U.S. captain Calabria wears the No. 10 shirt, and everything goes through him. He almost scores a spectacular goal-of-the-tournament contender when, with his back to goal, he flicks the ball up — using the upper-body and core strength that outfield players need to play using one leg and two crutches — swivels and hits a half-volley on the turn, only to see it flash over the bar. “That’s something I practice a good bit, against a wall,” he says after the game. “You never know when one of those will come your way.”

Midway through the second half, the U.S. makes the breakthrough. Defender Jason Evans plays the ball down the right channel for industrious forward/Stony Brook alumnus Jovan Booker to chase. He turns inside and plays the ball back to Calabria in the centre to feed Nzirimwo to score the only goal of the game. Nzirimwo makes a beeline for the bench and celebrates by dropping his crutches to the ground, leaping into the air and rolling on the grass. “With my speed, they’re not going to catch me,” he says later. “If you pass the ball in front of me, then the goals will come.”

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Musa Nzirimwo scores the game’s only goal as the U.S. beats England at the Amputee Football World Cup.

Nzirimwo has only been playing amputee soccer for a year. Before that, he played for his high school team in Syracuse, New York, wearing his prosthetic leg. “I scored hat tricks in some of the games,” he said.

Playing soccer is what he loves, but it also led to the moment during his early life in DR Congo that changed the course of his life. “I broke my leg when I was 7,” he said, referring to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. “I kicked a grenade. We were playing soccer with it, but we didn’t know it was a grenade. We thought it was like a little ball. I just woke up in the hospital. I had a lot of surgeries, probably like four or five.”

His injury required a level of treatment that the hospital in DR Congo could not provide for him, so eventually he travelled with his uncle to Kenya. There he got his first prosthetic and ended up staying for three years before coming to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 12 with his mother and two of his sisters.

Playing high school soccer helped him to settle in Syracuse, New York, a sanctuary city for refugees, and he also played for Tillie’s Touch, a club that aims to provide all children with access to sports and school equipment. It was a coach there who connected him with Calabria, who took a diversion from a cross-country drive home to Massachusetts just to meet a potential new striker. “That’s when I started playing with crutches,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a thing until I met Nico.”

Nzirimwo’s promise was immediately apparent — “I knew right away that Musa would be a star and national team player,” said Calabria. As coach Nacho Medrano added, “He changed our game, he took us to the next level” — and he, Calabria and Booker spent a weeklong, pre-World Cup training camp in California forging their attacking triumvirate. But visa problems meant he could not travel to Mexico for the qualifiers and, as the finals in Turkey approached, there were concerns he wouldn’t make it there either. “It was frustrating,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I’m not going.'”

Zarina Smith and her partner, Vince Forester, who help to support young people in Syracuse’s Congolese community and accompanied Nzirimwo to Turkey, were more determined. “We were actually planning on bringing him here with his travel document and no visa, and sitting in the Turkish airport to see if we could get through,” Smith said. “We were thinking we were going to fly 11 hours out here, attempt to get him through customs and, if we couldn’t, then fly back.”

It’s not just their own time that the couple has invested in making one boy’s World Cup dream happen. “We figured out we’re about $20,000 into this, over the past year and a half,” she added. Fortunately, their journey and expense was not wasted, and Nzirimwo was able to score in his first World Cup match.

Goal scorer Musa Nzirimwo, left, and Dr. Eric Lamberg, the U.S. coach, celebrate after winning against England. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

At the final whistle, the whole U.S. bench piles on to the field to celebrate with Nzirimwo and the rest of the team. The outpouring of emotion comes before any of them have gone to acknowledge their beaten opponents, leaving England coach Coyle to walk right into the throng to shake hands with Lamberg and congratulate the victors, with his squad following behind him. With those formalities over with, everyone is free to celebrate with the fans on the other side of the pitch, where goalkeeping coach Paige Palazzolo almost shouts herself hoarse leading a chant of “I believe that we will win.”

After watching some of Argentina’s match against fellow Group C rivals Indonesia, the celebrations continue on the open-top bus back to the city, with Ferguson saying he’ll take some fish and chips as lunch bags are passed around. He and Booker lead the renditions of songs by 50 Cent and Ludacris at the back of the top deck, and a singalong of “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi is accompanied by a toot of the horn from the driver that echoes as they go under an overpass on the freeway. Up front, defender Foday Dumbuya watches a live stream of his beloved Arsenal beat Tottenham 3-1 in the north London derby. Dumbuya — who lost his right leg at the age of 13 when he was shot during fighting in the civil war in his native Sierra Leone — is such a big fan of the Gunners that he has taken the nickname “Seaman,” after the club’s legendary goalkeeper, David.

Back at the team hotel, the squad strides back into the lobby with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from the speakers. There is not long to dwell on the victory, however, as each side play three games in as many days, and the U.S. kick off their next match against Argentina in 19 hours.

Members of the U.S. side celebrate on the bus ride back to their hotel after winning their game against England. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

That opening win vindicates Calabria’s belief that the U.S. is “without a doubt, the most well-prepared it has ever been.” The 28-year-old from Concord, Massachusetts, has been captain for eight of his 10 years on the amputee team. Despite being born without his right leg and hip (“it was a surprise for my parents,”) and being identified as a potential player by the AASA when he was just 6 years old, Calabria grew up playing on nondisabled teams with his crutches, something he still does.

“I had played until the varsity level at my high school and had made those teams on merit, but I was always the slowest person on the field and ended up playing as a drop forward, threading through balls, playing one- and two-touch, and I got really good at that,” he said. “And then playing my first amputee match in Mexico they were like ‘Oh dude, you’re the fastest one here.’ So it was a total game shift for me.”

Calabria took time out from his job as a seventh-grade social studies teacher and varsity coach in order to prepare for the World Cup. “It’s been really fun to take this whole year to focus on being the best soccer player that I can be and getting our sport as much exposure as possible,” he said.

Nico Calabria was first identified by the American Amputee Soccer Association when he was just 6 years old. Carl Calabria

A landmark moment in that quest for more exposure came just a few weeks before the tournament, when the team were offered the chance to take part in an event in Times Square arranged by Street Soccer USA and the German Bundesliga. The invitation came in just a week before the event, but Lamberg and Calabria managed to scramble their players from all over the country for a 20-minute showcase of their sport in the middle of New York City.

“These are essentially the things I left my job so I could do, because it’s tough to do that and then go back to a full week of work every week,” Calabria said. “The team is getting these awesome opportunities to play in front of a crowd, and that was a really cool experience to be in the middle of Times Square and have people watching and the sport shown at a high level.”

The United States’ next opponents, Argentina, win their opener against Indonesia 3-0, and Sunday’s fixture becomes even more challenging as a storm brings heavy rain right as the teams are warming up. Players wear regular soccer boot with cleats, but the rubber tips of their crutches are the same as those used day-to-day, making it more difficult to move and turn on the soaking wet turf. There are jokes among the coaching staff that at least the floodlights around the pitch will act as lightning rods in the storm, rather than any of the multiple metal sticks the players are carrying.

After just five minutes, Booker’s cross ricochets off a defender and puts Calabria one-on-one with the keeper. The U.S. captain finishes clinically and heads straight over to celebrate with the fans, who are fighting a losing battle to stay dry under the small, sheltered stand on the halfway line.

Argentina respond emphatically, with Facundo Bernal scoring twice to give his side a 2-1 lead at half-time before his dribble into the box sets up a tap-in for Andres Lopez to put the result beyond doubt.

Two hours later, England take on Indonesia, with the kick-off preceded by a minute’s silence for the stadium disaster in Malang, East Java, the previous night in which at least 125 people died. Goals from England’s Tregaskiss, Rhyce Ramsden and TJ Yates seal a 3-0 win that keeps the race for the two automatic qualification spots in Group C open.

U.S. player Jovan Booker, center, goes after the ball during the team’s game against Argentina. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Of the 15 players in the U.S. squad who have travelled to Turkey, five of them are part of the Lone Star Adaptive Soccer club based in Houston. As well as club founder Ferguson, Dumbuya and Oliva, there are also the U.S. squad’s two youngest members: Kavi Pandya, 17, and 18-year-old Amie Donathan. The duo, respectively from the Dallas suburbs of Plano and McKinney, have both only been involved with the national team for a little over a year, but already their international careers have taken them to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait.

Donathan is one of only two female players at the tournament, along with Uruguay’s Florencia Nunez. The sport of amputee soccer was conceived primarily for rehabilitation and designed to be as inclusive as possible, therefore there was no gender separation — which is one of the barriers to the sport being considered for the Paralympics. A handful of nations have dedicated women’s teams, but until that side of the game is firmly established, the World Cup is a mixed tournament.

“I just wanted to play, so I didn’t care if it was with women, which I don’t know how long that is going to take to come up,” said Donathan, who hopes to major in biomedical engineering at college. “I have a lot of older boy cousins, so I’ve played football with them, wrestle with them, you know. So it hasn’t been an uncommon thing for me to play with men. It’s pretty fun.”

Donathan, who was born with her limb difference but played able-bodied soccer for six years before turning her attention to golf, first became aware of amputee soccer when she was approached by coach Israel Sanchez and Booker at an MLS game between FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders. While Calabria predicts she will be “an absolute stud” and captain of the women’s team in the years to come — she is aware of the significance of being the only girl playing for the U.S.

“It’s a little bit of extra stress, because I know that a lot of people are especially watching me, especially young girls that I know, and their eyes are mostly on me,” she said. “So if I do bad, then nobody wants to play. In other countries, it’s building a lot. The U.S. is just behind — as it is with most soccer things. There are some female players who are on board, but we just need more exposure and more commitment to play.”

U.S players Amie Donathan, center right, and Kavi Pandya, center left, take a moment with their teammates before the first game. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Coming from the same area and being of a similar age, Donathan and Pandya are most often seen together. Donathan’s mother, Hannah, acts as chaperone to the only girl on the team, but she is just as likely to be making sure Pandya checks that his crutches are properly adjusted and screwed tight before practice as she is on her own daughter. “We just help out in any way that we can with the team,” she said of the unofficial but important contributions that many of the players’ families make. “Amie’s dad [Cliff] is at the store right now getting Gatorade, or one time we rented a car because they didn’t have enough cars to take people to a game in Boston. So we just do whatever they need us to do.”

Pandya’s own family — father Purvish, mother Darshana and little brother Rishi — are also in Turkey. Purvish has enjoyed mixing with all the different teams from around the world, even if they barely understand each other’s languages. Before the opening ceremony, as the different squads were assembling in the hotel lobby, he was holding court with several players from the Iraq squad. “It’s like a superpower,” Kavi said.

It’s not long before a proud Purvish has his phone out, showing pictures that help tell his son’s story; how he was diagnosed with bone cancer at just 7 years old and had his right leg amputated.

“After my first surgery, I had gotten a prosthetic that gave me more motion and ability to move around than I have right now,” said Kavi, who plans to major in biokinesiology at college with the end goal of becoming a sports medicine physician. “Even after getting my first amputation, I was still playing baseball with able-bodied kids, doing everything with them.”

About five years later, after the family had relocated from Chicago to Dallas, Kavi relapsed.

“They had to fully amputate my leg, which just cut out any ability to move that I had because the prosthetic that they gave me after that was bulky and heavy and I really hated it,” he said. “I wasn’t able to play baseball, which really got me down. But I turned to my crutches and I was able to find soccer, which was really amazing.”

Kavi Pandya’s father, center, shows pictures of his son, Kavi, to members of the Iraq team who are staying at the same hotel. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Monday’s final round of group matches sees all four teams in each group kick off simultaneously, so no one can benefit from knowing the result of another game.

Calabria opens the scoring for the U.S. against Indonesia within a minute from a free kick and goes on to net a hat trick, and he also assists Carlos Ayala’s headed goal and has another shot canon in off an Indonesia player for an own goal. Coach Lamberg could hardly have asked for a better day’s work from his team: Calabria has a hand in all five goals, Donathan and goalkeeper Thomas Reff win their first caps, Pandya gets some more minutes under his belt after his late cameo against England, and almost everyone else in the squad gets some time on the field.

Meanwhile, England look to be heading into half-time against Argentina 2-0 down, only for Tweed to score one goal from a tight angle and another from the penalty spot in first-half injury time. But there is heartbreak for Coyle’s team right at the finish as Liam Burbridge misses a golden opportunity at one end, only for Lopez to chase on to a long ball and score a late winner at the other.

Those results mean that Argentina top the group and will face Morocco, England go through as one of the four best third-placed teams and will play defending champions Angola, while the United States’ reward for finishing second — courtesy of that win over England — is a meeting with Haiti, a team they know very well.

It was while he was in Haiti on a volunteer physical therapy mission 10 years ago that Lamberg discovered the sport in the first place. “The hospital was up on a hill, and I looked down on to the fields and I saw some guys playing soccer on crutches,” he said. “My researching and teaching has always been around amputations, prosthetics and orthotics. So I went down to speak with them and I saw that all these guys were playing with an amputation. I never saw the sport, never heard about it before.”

That chance encounter led to him coaching the U.S. at a World Cup two years later, with Dr. James Pierre-Glaude accompanying him as the only other member of support staff (“everyone else was a player, so we were doing everything — from soup to nuts.”) Eight years on, those two are part of a group of 11 working to set the team up for a round-of-16 knockout match against their most familiar opponents.

“We do have a special place for Haiti,” Lamberg said. “They’re our closest neighbours to play the matches. Fred Sorrells is an American who has helped develop the game of amputee soccer in Haiti. We always want to see them develop and have success because there are so many people who are living with amputation in Haiti. Soccer is such a big part of their lives.

“It’s a competition. During these 50 minutes of match, it’s a game. We’re looking to play our best and come out on top. After the match, we’re very happy to continue our relationship and grow the sport in our region.”

In the round of 16, England’s campaign is ended by Angola. The defending champions are forced into extra-time after a goalless regulation 50 minutes but, in the second of two additional 10-minute periods, Heno Sebastiao Adao scores and celebrates by coolly putting a finger to his lips in a “shhh” gesture. England rally after Joao Chiquete’s late red card as Tweed is agonisingly denied with several chances to equalise and force a penalty shootout, but it’s too late.

An hour later, over on pitch 3B, the U.S. and Haiti play out as an open game with chances and saves at both ends. Haiti break the deadlock on 19 minutes when Richard “Redondo” El Principe flicks a stunning volley on the turn past Oliva. It is the first time the U.S. have conceded the opening goal, but they are handed a lifeline in first-half stoppage time when Haiti goalkeeper Jean John-Baby steps outside of his area and concedes a penalty, which Calabria converts with the last kick of the half.

The game follows in the same vein after the break, but it’s not until additional time at the end of the second half when Redondo outmuscles U.S. defender and professional skier Vasu Sojitra and chips the ball over Oliva. But the U.S. continue to push forward and, with possibly their last chance to stay in the World Cup, Booker heads a free kick from deep toward goal and the nervous Haiti defence conspires to fumble it over the line. It is an extraordinary show of spirit for the U.S. to score not one but two late equalisers and force extra time, but there is little left in the tank. In extra time, two more goals from Redondo and one each for John Spinoza and Charles Saviola make the final score 6-2 and send the U.S. out.

However, it does not mean that they — or any team, for that matter — are going home just yet. Every side remains in Turkey after they are eliminated to play more matches in order to determine their final classification among the 24 nations at the World Cup.

After losing 4-3 to Japan and a 3-1 defeat to Poland, the U.S. are able to finish on a high with a 1-0 win over Mexico which sees them finish 15th, while England end up ninth after victories over Poland (3-0), Japan (2-0) and Argentina (4-3.)

Tregaskiss’ haul of seven goals is the most by an England player, while Calabria finishes the tournament with eight goals — one behind joint top scorers Omer Guleryuz of Turkey and Haiti duo Saviola and Redondo — despite playing on for three more games after breaking two toes during the loss to Haiti.

The U.S. players greet children with disabilities during the opening ceremony of the Amputee World Cup at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Twenty-four national teams converged on Istanbul to compete for World Cup glory — or, at the very least, to claim as high a world ranking as possible, But outside of the competition — which cost the WAFF €3 million ($2.9m) and required around 5,000 people to stage — there is a real feeling of community and respect that runs through everyone involved with the tournament. At the end of a training session, U.S. coach Israel Sanchez insists everyone gathers up their trash so that the pitch is clean and tidy for the Republic of Ireland team, who are waiting come on and use it next, and Coyle gives his England players and staff the same message as they are preparing to leave Fenerbahce’s stadium following the opening match.

Donathan turned 18 while she was in Turkey. During their evening meal in the hotel catering hall, the U.S. squad got her to stand up and began a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for her, and soon they were joined by other teams including England, Ireland and Italy in singing. Then one of the Irish players, who also happened to be celebrating their birthday, joined Donathan and everyone sang again, making the moment slightly less mortifying for a teenager thrust into the centre of attention.

“When something like that happens, it transcends the sport,” Lamberg said. “It’s about the community of people who live with amputation, who are playing soccer, who are elite athletes. It’s just the support and community that we all have together.”

Turkey fans cheer during the opening match. Their team would emerge victorious from the tournament. Danielle Villasana for ESPN

Haiti made it through to the semifinals, where they were defeated 4-2 by Angola, while Turkey dispatched Mexico, Morocco and surprise package Uzbekistan to meet the defending champions in the final. In front of 30,000 spectators at Vodafone Park, the hosts win 4-1, and Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan presents them with their first World Cup trophy to hold alongside the European Championship they won five years ago.

The Turkish victory is the perfect case study for how success can be achieved if the sport has the right backing and infrastructure, and how fans can be drawn to a sport — nondisabled or disabled — if they are exposed to it and the level of competitiveness and athleticism makes them stay. Perhaps that is the real legacy of this tournament for the U.S., a young team on the cusp of taking the sport in their country to the next level.

“I’ve got a lot of friends who ended up watching that game and they all said, after watching it, they are hooked on amputee soccer,” Lamberg says. “That was the objective, to get more people to be engaged, to hopefully grow the sport, and let people realise that it’s a fast, exciting spectacle to watch.

“We do feel that people are starting to wake up and recognise that U.S. amputee soccer is a different brand of amputee soccer than it was in the past. We’re happy that we’re turning heads and that people are saying ‘Wow, they’re doing something right over there.'”



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