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Nico Calabria and The Fastest Game on One Leg

“And that’s really what it’s all about: giving that kid Isaac an opportunity and there are many more Isaacs out there that are just waiting to hear about it. We’re excited for that moment to explode and make sure that everyone who wants to play can play.”

SOCCER: JUN 02 Amputee Soccer - USA v England Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nico Calabria is not your typical soccer player. Sure, he brings the same intensity, passion, and love for the game of soccer as most players. He just does it on one leg.

Calabria is the captain of the United States Amputee Soccer Team, as well as a member of the New England Amputee Soccer Team, which is scheduled to play New York during halftime of this weekend’s Revolution match. For soccer fans in attendance who will likely have never seen amputee soccer before, it’ll open their eyes to an exciting version of the sport.

“It’s super intense, it’s high-paced, it’s violent. I’ve heard people describe it as demolition derby meets soccer,” said Calabria. “It’s the type of thing where you might have an idea of what it might be like, and then you see it live and it’s a little bit different.”

Amputee soccer has a lot of the same rules as able-bodied soccer, with a few twists. Teams field seven players, with outfield players having one leg and playing on forearm crutches, while goalies have one arm. There are no offsides, all throw-ins are direct kicks, and goalies are not allowed to leave the goalie box, which is amputee soccer’s version of an 18-yard box.

While Amputee Soccer was invented and developed in the 1980s, the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) wasn’t formed until 2005. Originally consisting of seven members, WAFF has expanded to over 50 member nations on five continents with more nationals applying for membership.

The federation also hosts the World Cup, which has grown from four teams to over 20 in this year’s version.

It isn’t just the number of teams that have grown either: The federation held formal qualifying tournaments for the first time in Amputee World Cup history.

“In the past, it was really like ‘who can come? It cost this much if you can get your team here, you’re invited to come,’” said Calabria. “And this is the first time that there’s has been a formalized football tournament with representatives from WAFF coming to the tournament, making sure the due diligence is done. Just that speaks to the fact that the sport has grown in the last four years.”

Along with the growth of international competitions some nations have established domestic leagues of amputee soccer, including this year’s World Cup host, Turkey. Calabria says Turkey has two levels of professional amputee soccer which attracts talent from around the globe, and the national team is fully state-sponsored. That level of support has led Turkey to win the last two European Championships and entering as one of the favorites at the World Cup. For Calabria, those countries set a model of what he hopes to build in America.

“The best countries in the world include many African nations, Turkey, England, France, Italy, Japan, the list goes on. Those places all have domestic leagues where they’re having their practices on a regular basis in their region and then they’re having domestic competitions. That’s something we’re really trying to emulate here in the United States.”

Calabria said that recent Word Cup Qualification matches in San Juan De Los Lagos, Jalisco (Mexico), were the most intense competition he’s been a part of. Just like the sport itself, the crowds at these tournaments are getting larger as well.

“That city (San Juan De Los Lagos) absolutely shows out for amputee soccer. You go down there and you’re a complete celebrity, everyone in that town knows who you are and why you’re there and they want your autograph and they want to take a picture with you.”

But growing the game back in the United States has been a challenge. With players located throughout the country, individuals typically train on their own, and practice time as a team is limited. Currently the United States Amputee Soccer Team has regional teams in New England, New York, and Houston, with an additional four prospective teams.

“There’s not just an amputee soccer team in every town where if someone hears about it, they can go try it out. It’s a big commitment. You might have to drive a couple hours, you might have to buy crutches, take time off work. Really our mission is to try to make it accessible to as many people as possible.”

The New England Amputee Soccer Team is one of the more established regional teams, and Calabria credits its partnership with the New England Revolution.

“The Revolution have basically welcomed us into their organization,” he said. “They allow us to use the Revolution name, they outfit us in jerseys, they give us promotional materials. And as far as I understand, this is the only place that’s happening in the country.”

A few years after Calabria was honored as “Hero of the Match” during a game in 2014, he reached out to the Revolution to see if they would want to be involved. Calabria says he heard back shortly after and the support since then has been huge: “The Revolution have been involved where they’re able. Getting us out to training sessions, getting us face time with the team, helping financially, providing uniforms, providing gear. All that stuff, just bringing the sport to another level here.”

“I can’t tell you how significant it is when you have a new player come to try amputee soccer...and getting to offer them a Revolution jersey,” said Calabria. “Having the stamp of approval from the Revolution means a lot and you can just tell from the people who get those jerseys and buy-in in that moment.”

While the regional teams have a lot of room to grow, they have already paid dividends for the United States team as they prepare for the World Cup. Four years ago, the United States held two training camps in the span of three months, and there was a lack of cohesion among the players at the 2018 World Cup. This year, with better organizational support and established regional teams that train routinely, the team feels a lot more prepared for international competition.

“We’ve clicked in a way and we’ve grown as players in a way that’s really exciting to watch. We’re amongst the most competitive teams in the world and have a legitimate shot at making a push for the cup,” said Calabria.

After qualifying for the World Cup, Calabria and the United States now turn their attention to their next challenge: Fundraising.

“We have a massive amount of fundraising in order to get the team to the World Cup. Just to put things in perspective, we’ll be taking 20-30 people - staff and players - to the World Cup in Turkey,” said Calabria. “US Soccer basically hasn’t picked us up and we don’t have the funding from the national organization, so it’s on us to raise those funds for ourselves.”

Calabria says they have a target to raise $100,000 to $150,000 by September, with all donations funding the team’s costs for preparation and travel to the Amputee World Cup. Included in those plans are at least three national training camps, two international friendlies that would be played in the United States, and the cost to bring the team to the World Cup, which is estimated to cost $50,000 by itself.

The team also hopes to purchase some new equipment: Calabria says the team has been using the same jerseys for five years.

He also mentioned that they are hopeful they can hire their first full-time employee in the near future. Currently, every player and staff member within the organization works full-time, and as a result, the team isn’t just looking for donations but volunteers as well.

“We want people to get involved, we could use help in every single way: Website Design, Social Media, Coaching, Administration. You name it, we need help with it. The more people we get involved, the farther we’re going to go,” said Calabria. “When you find that one person who can really make a difference in one way, their impact can be felt in a significant way at this point of the organization.”

“I just want to play soccer, and I think that’s how a lot of guys feel. I’m a fundraiser too and an organizer behind the scenes and we’re really close with one more push to moving past that to setting up something that’s totally sustainable, whereby there is a professional organization that is making this happen across the country. And any donation is making us one step closer to the goal.”

Calabria is optimistic for the United States to become a powerhouse in amputee soccer and that they can take the team to the next level and build a foundation for the next generation of amputee athletes.

“On our last practice, we had this young kid named Isaac, whose family had basically seen a news story about the team. And you know, his parents are completely overjoyed with the fact that this exists. They had no idea, like most people don’t. They realized that their son is going to have an opportunity to play the game that he loves at a competitive level and have a chance to represent the United States and the Revolution. And that’s really what it’s all about: giving that kid Isaac an opportunity and there are many more Isaacs out there that are just waiting to hear about it. We’re excited for that moment to explode and make sure that everyone who wants to play can play.”

If you are interested in getting involved with the American Amputee Soccer Association, you can visit usampsoccer.org or reach out to Nico personally at revolutionampsoccer@gmail.com. You can also make a financial donation at https://www.usampsoccer.org/donate.

If you are interested in watching the New England Amputee Soccer Team play, you can see them in a demonstration the New York Metro Amputee Soccer Team at halftime of this weekend’s Revolution game, as well as a full match at 8 AM on Sunday, April 4th at the FC Stars Complex in Lancaster, MA.

A full interview with Nico Calabria can be heard on Revolution Recap, which is available on all podcast platforms.