Funding blow damages hopes of footballers on road to Rio


newslatestMembers of Britain’s blind football team have criticised a government quango’s decision to cut much of their funding, just a year after it was awarded for the first time.

The decision to confirm the funding cut will make it harder for the team to train together as full-time professionals in the lead-up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

UK Sport – the agency responsible for allocating National Lottery and government funding for high-performance sport – also confirmed the decision to remove financial support from goalball and wheelchair fencing. It is now funding 20 Olympic and 17 Paralympic summer sports in the run-up to Rio.

UK Sport had been providing £1.3 million over four years to allow the players to train full-time, while the Football Association (FA) has supplemented that with another £1 million.

The decision to award UK Sport funding to blind five-a-side football for the first time, in December 2012, had been greeted as an historic step for the sport in the UK.

Keryn Seal, one of the squad members, described it then as “a great day for blind football”, while team-mate Robin Williams said it was a “momentous, incredible, fantastic day for us and our sport”, with the FA saying the money would enable blind football to “make the leap from part-time status to a full-time element”.

Eight members of the squad have been receiving individual financial support of £12,000 a year as a result of the UK Sport funding, and Williams told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that that had been enough for them to train as full-time professionals.

But hopes that a full-time blind football team might push on to win a medal for ParalympicsGB in Rio in two years’ time have now suffered a severe blow, after UK Sport reversed its decision and removed the funding.

Williams said he was hopeful that they would find funding from alternative sources, but if that was not possible the “odds would be stacked against us”, and he would have to balance training with finding some other paid work.

He told DNS on Twitter: “Would be hard/impossible to train full time without some kind of income for doing so, esp as teams need to be together.

“Emotionally it’s a tough one to take at the moment. Lads have given up jobs, put educations on hold, to follow a full time programme, only for the funding to be removed after less than a year. To say I’m unhappy about it would be an understatement.”

He said: “Luckily I hope and think the FA believe in us and will back us going forward in this cycle, but it’s only natural to be concerned about the situation until we know what will be available to us.”

And he criticised UK Sport’s “assertion” that the team “lacked the commitment to win medals”.

He said: “They’re more than welcome to follow me for a week, attend my 10 sessions, travel to/from Burton or Hereford, get buses at all hours, go part time (or quit) their jobs. And I’m in no way a-typical of our squad. Any takers? Didn’t think so.”

Seal told followers on Twitter that the team would “qualify for Rio and achieve things without UK Sport money” because they had a governing body – the FA – that believed in them.

He told DNS that to lose the UK Sport funding was “an extremely difficult and bitter pill to swallow”.

Jeff Davis, the FA’s national football development manager (disability) and performance manager for Paralympic GB football, said if they failed to find another funding source it could mean having to “reduce the full-time nature of the players”, and would “definitely” damage their chances of winning a medal in Rio.

He said the team had shown a “dramatic change, both technically and physically” since they had been training full-time.

Davis said: “It’s not like any other team sport. With the blind athletes, they build up a tremendous amount of trust and get to know how people move and what [other]people can do.

“The more they are together, the better they play together, and the better they play as a team.”

In November, they won one game and drew two against Spain, the reigning European champions.

Next year, they host the European championships in Hereford, with the top two teams qualifying automatically for Rio.

Davis said he hoped the FA would add to its existing £1 million with the remaining £750,000 needed to fill the gap in the run-up to Rio.

Liz Nicholl, chief executive of UK Sport, said of the organisation’s decision to remove funding from six Olympic and Paralympic sports: “These are tough calls to make and we know that it is even tougher for the sports and athletes directly affected by funding withdrawal.

“All of these sports know that they have the opportunity to come back to us at the annual review stage each autumn to make a case for future funding if they can demonstrate a realistic opportunity to win a medal within the next two Olympic or Paralympic cycles.”

20 March 2014