Power, precision and $30K ‘boots’: Inside the Powerchair World Cup

SYDNEY — When football “boots” cost $30,000 and your luggage is measured in tonnes, not kilograms, packing up to travel across the world for a tournament is no mean feat.

However, as France departed Sydney Airport for the long flight home, the national team added one more valuable piece of excess baggage to their haul: The 2023 FIPFA Powerchair World Cup trophy.

Dominating the group stage, Les Bleus conceded just two goals and converted a whopping 45 at the other end, to quite literally power through to meet England in the World Cup final at the Quaycentre in Sydney.

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The final was a robust tussle that saw France take the lead on 28 minutes before England equalised shortly after. Still locked at 1-1 after extra time, French attacker Mohamed Ghelami went on the defensive, switching to goalkeeper ahead of the inevitable penalty shootout. This proved to be a tactical masterstroke as he saved three penalty shots to secure France a second successive title.

Ghelami is no stranger to World Cup glory after scoring the last goal of the 2017 Powerchair World Cup final, and he was in even better touch for 2023. Nimbly navigating the court, Ghelami’s exquisite control of his chair, splitting defences and scoring from seemingly impossible positions, saw him awarded both Player of the Tournament and Golden Guard (most goals) at the closing dinner of the 2023 edition.

While he proudly wears the tricolour of France, to watch Ghelami whip around the floor with the No. 10 emblazoned on his chair, there are no prizes for guessing which footballer he draws inspiration from.

“I’m very into technique and I like players who are great with their football technique, like [Lionel] Messi,” Ghelami told ESPN.

Run by the Federation Internationale de Powerchair Football Association (FIPFA), Powerchair Football is an adaptive form of football which is open to all who use an electric wheelchair for daily mobility. Powerchair athletes have differing levels of abilities and live with a range of conditions, but on the court, all are equal.

Each athlete uses a standard chair — the Strike Force powerchair — that is speed tested after matches to ensure each chair complies with regulations. Controlled by a joystick, the chairs have metal footguards attached to the front that are used to “kick” an oversized football straight on, or by spinning the chair and using the side of the guard for a more powerful shot.

“We play in specially made chairs out of the USA called the Strike Force,” Australia captain Dimitri Liolio-Davis explained. “They are super powerful, we control it with a joystick, with a lot of strapping to hold us in really tight because you really feel the G-force, like a mini-Formula 1 car.

“To get one into Australia is about $30,000, so I guess it’s our $30,000 football boots.”

Similar to every other form of football, players who are skilled in dead-ball situations are crucial and in Powerchair, even more valuable, as direct goals are allowed from both “hit-ins” and “kick-offs” unlike the traditional version of the game. These set pieces provide excellent goal-scoring opportunities as opposition players are required to be at least play metres from the ball when play begins.

The use of space is also critical in Powerchair football, with only one player from each team allowed within three metres of the ball in general play. This allows for tactical manoeuvring and passing space, while infringement of this “2 on 1” rule leads to the opposition receiving an indirect free kick.

Powerchair football is fast-paced and dynamic, with two teams of four players each (including the goalkeeper) competing on a court that measures 30 metres by 18 metres and has goalposts at either end.

A sports fanatic, Liolio-Davis describes himself as football crazy, yet playing in a World Cup is something he thought was out of reach.

“I knew one of the fathers of a player who started the organisation back in 2010 and he saw it on somewhere like YouTube and got word that this sport existed,” the Poweroos skipper said. “He said ‘I’m looking to start it and would you be interested?’

“I’m absolutely football crazy; I love my Chelsea FC so I was like, ‘Yeah for sure,’ and I was involved from the foundation of it starting here in Australia.

“Obviously having the disability that I have, it’s hard to even do any of the Paralympic sports, but to be able to do my favourite sport, it’s an absolute dream come true.”

Whilst a love for football underpinned the motivation for the athletes at this Powerchair World Cup, that was also reflected in the stands with fans in full voice.

“Yes of course, that is what a World Cup is about. It’s nice to play when you can hear your fans singing,” Denmark’s Mark Sorenson told ESPN, paying tribute to the fans whose chants and cheers echoed around the venue.

“Danish fans are absolutely the best fans in the World Cup. They are unbelievable; the whole tournament they have been incredible.”

Broadcaster and former pro footballer Andy Harper has seen more football tournaments than most and, as chair of the local organising committee, he summed up the unifying nature of this version of the game.

“To walk through this world with these people and to be able to move beyond — and I’m not ashamed to say it — the confronting nature of their daily situation, their life and how the hell life works for them; from what happens in the morning, up until what happens when they go to bed. This game takes you through that, beyond that,” Harper said.

“All that goes when they get into the chair, and thankfully for them there’s the opportunity for the mainstream to move beyond that as well, to get in the chair with them metaphorically and just admire how bloody good they are.”

Harper declared the tournament a life-changing experience and praised the enormous support and dedication of Peter Turnbull. Turnbull has a long history of involvement in Australian football, as founder of Sydney FC and also former chair of the Central Coast Mariners. He was appointed coach of the Australian Powerchair national team and is committed to seeing the sport flourish Down Under and garner the support some of the other nations enjoy.

“The USA team is part of U.S. Soccer, so they are a recognised national team, paid to come here with their expenses covered and they get a per diem amount each day,” he said. “England is the same — a national team of the FA — and France is the same in as much as they are a division of France disabled sport.”

“We aren’t. We’ve relied heavily on government support, which wasn’t particularly forthcoming this time other than from the NSW government, which was fantastic. The federal government gave us nothing which was why we had to get so many private sponsors.”

The next FIPFA Powerchair Football World Cup will be hosted by Argentina in 2026, but while the cheers of Les Bleus fans continued to echo around the stadium in Sydney, Ricky Stevenson, president of FIPFA, took a moment to reflect on the success of the event just completed.

“It’s been a fantastic tournament, the last six years of working with the LOC have been amazing,” he told ESPN. “After the uncertainty of the COVID delays, where it was on again, off again, I think what we’ve been able to do this week here is absolutely amazing. The athletes have worked hard to get here, to overcome all adversity and be able to perform on the stage that we’ve set for them.

“I’m really proud and we roll onto the next one. Only three years to go!”