Despite 15% of the population considered 'disabled', dismissive attitudes to the subject are still prevalent in Russia. Here's Domm Norris to explain how answers may lie in the impact made by amputee football in the country.
The game as we see it week in, week out is played by athletes who are the epitome of toned, sporting prowess. The growth of the game and its economic benefits mean that footballers are heavily focussed upon physical conditioning - you need only look for Ryan Giggs' yoga dvd to see how far fitness has come in football.
But what about those people who have found themselves in a position where they are unable to play football in its most recognised form. The beauty of football is that it is easily moulded to suit the needs of anyone, anywhere. It can be a truly accessible sport - so whether you are able to walk or not is irrelevant as the flexibility of football caters for all.
Amputee football is one aspect of the game that has seen expansion across the globe - in particular as a consequence of the war and conflicts that plague many of our societies causing countless civilians to suffer severe injuries as a result. Such a strand of the game has also become popular within Russia where around 2% of its overall population is considered as being an amputee. For a nation as populous as Russia, the figure of 2% encapsulates quite a significant number of people. The manner in which this group - as well as the 15% of the nation who are considered to be disabled - are integrated into the social structure of the nation is an issue that supporters of amputee football in Russia are attempting to correct.
There has been an underlying sentiment that not enough is being done to integrate the disabled into Russian society. For example public transport is strictly off limits due to lacking the infrastructure of accessibility - which is simply not in place. The government has made claims that it is willing to make changes to the major cities across the nation in order to make Russia a disability friendly nation. However as Dmitri Medvedev makes pledges to the United Nations that action will be taken, there is still the sense that Russia will simply do what it has done for so long after promising so much - very little. The Winter Olympics - due to be held in Sochi in 2014 - and consequently the Paralymic Winter Games are due to be entirely accessible to one and all however it remains a case of seen to be believed. It is this injustice that has prevented the development of sports such as amputee football, however there has been progress regardless of the social and political barriers.
One of the issues that amputee football faces in Russia is the fact that it relies heavily upon private funding through organisations and investment from businesses. The lack of prominent state funding for the sport - which is believed to be due to the fact that other paralympic sports hold greater significance - has resulted in the Russian Disabled Football Federation (RDFF) attempting to 'cosy up' to business associates and the Russian Football Union (RFU) in a bid to tackle their social morality. The growing sentiment that big business must be seen to be acting to improve the lives of Russia's people has meant that sports - such as amputee football - are able to reap the benefits.
The impact of the RFU in the development of Russian amputee football should not be understated. It has been through the involvement of Russia's national footballing body that amputee football has been able to grow and push forward with the organization of a national championship - which is still attempting to reach a widespread audience across the country - consisting of a two tiered league system where 8 teams make up the Premier League while a further 10 sides complete the First League. With the assistance of the RFU, Russia was able to host the European Championships in 2006 which helped to serve as the building blocks upon which amputee football could express itself on a wider scale to people who would have previously been unable to access the sport.
The role and prominence of charitable organizations have also helped amputee football make significant moves forward. During the Chechen Wars of the 1990's a significant number of people were left with amputated limbs due to the conflict and the copious levels of land mines which caused countless injuries to both soldiers and civilians. The war left Chechnya a wounded beast, left for dead. The United Nations claimed that the city of Grozny was the most destroyed city on earth due to the destruction of the war - an unwanted accolade that epitomised the desperation of the region. For those who survived the conflict with physical disabilities, reintegration within society proved to be a difficult process. The slow reactions of the Russian government to improve accessibility mean that it is only through the assistance of independent charitable organisations that help and support is provided to those who require it. Charities such as Unicef have provided the opportunity for amputee football fans from Checnya to take to the field as - in cooperation with the Laman Az project - 2002 saw the creation of the club Laman Az which has gone on to become one of the most prominent outfits and has seen some of its players feature for the Russian nation team in international tournaments.
While amputee football is growing within areas of Russia there are still hurdles that prevent the sport from progressing to the heights of other popular paralympic sports. One major issue is the development of young talent due to the fact that, unlike football clubs across the world, amputee clubs do not have an endless stream of young players to pick and choose from. Many new players come to the sport during their working life as opposed to teenage years due to the fact that many suffer injuries at the workplace which consequently leave them with amputated limbs. Sergei Lisitsyn - an experienced amputee football coach - states that 'every amputee footballer must be very good at moving his body. A really skilful player may perform a cascade of tricks, or any single one. Every movement by such a player is timely and valuable for his team'. When new players join the ranks of an established side it is initially difficult to find success. After all amputee footballers must utilise an entirely new method of movement - in a manner which is completely alien to how they will have previously moved prior to the amputation. It is therefore a steep learning curve which can take a period of time to master - with the aid of coaches and fellow players who are able to play and understand the nuances of the game.
There is little doubt that amputee football in Russia is on a gradual incline to receiving the recognition it so rightfully deserves. The efforts of charities and the RFU have provided people - who have been forced to come to terms with a serious injury - with the belief that they can continue to lead a normal life where sport can remain at its heart. In a nation where disabilities have not be widely recognised and accessibility has not been a priority it is testament to the hard work and effort of those involved that amputee football in Russia has a national championship and a national team who are able to compete on the most significant stages that the sport has to offer. It's a lesson to all that through adversity hope can prevail and football can inspire.
Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent football ramblings.