Dressed in a pair of green shorts and a blue jersey, Mohammad Abdullah slips on his football boots. Then, stretching his arms and limbering up a bit, he races out from the locker room of the National Stadium in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka to the field, football in hand.
His coach Abdul is already out on the field and training a few other players on the finer points of dribbling.
‘Come along,’ he shouts to Abdullah. ‘Today we are going to be shooting goals.’
The ball is placed in the penalty kick position and the 22-year-old footballer gets ready to kick it into the goalpost. Five short steps and Abdullah sends the ball sailing cleanly into the nets before hurrying to his position for the next kick.
At first glance Abdullah looks like a kid player – reaching barely the shoulders of the other players on the field. But it’s only when you look at his lower body that you realise that this powerfully built player has no legs – they end mid-thigh.
‘I lost them in a train accident,’ he explains.
Abdullah was abandoned by his mother when he was just seven years old and was raised by his father and stepmother before he ran away from home. ‘I missed my mother so much I ran away,’ he says. ‘I was angry and helpless. I lived on the road and begged for a living, and after a couple of months I found a home with my grandmother.’
The passionate football fan was 12 years old when a freak accident left him an amputee.
‘It was in 2001. I was travelling on a train and trying to reach another carriage on the moving train when I slipped and my legs got trapped under the wheels of the speeding train,’ he says.
‘Forget playing football, I thought I’d never be able to even walk again.’
Abdullah was rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where he received treatment. He eventually lost both his legs below the thigh.
Abdullah was alone at hospital and no one from his family made contact. Eventually the hospital authorities sent him to an orphanage as soon as he was strong enough. The orphanage admitted Abdullah to Barisal Yusuf School, where he studied for 18 months, but eventually he left the place. Bound to a wheelchair the teenager feared he might have to spend the rest of his life trapped on wheels. ‘But eventually I decided to try and do without it. I was determined to be independent so I began trying to walk. I was tired of seeing myself in that helpless condition.’
‘I was very lost, I didn’t know where I wanted to belong and I was scared of being trapped. I lived on the streets and my condition meant it was easy to beg. People saw me and always gave me money.
‘But I wasn’t happy, I wanted something better for myself. I knew I have strong arms, so I decided to try to work. I started hawking newspapers and I saved a little amount from the money I earned.
‘I faced difficulties initially but succeeded eventually. Now I can walk, work and play football like other people.’
Today the young man, who also works as a luggage porter at Sadarghat Terminal at the Central Ferry station, is making a name for himself with his spectacular football skills and rivals any able-bodied player his age.
Abdullah always had a love for football but when he lost his legs he lost interest in the game – until one day he saw some boys playing on the street.
‘My interest in football reignited when I lived on the streets. I saw boys playing on the roadside and I wanted to play too. But they didn’t let me play and that upset me. They didn’t think I was able and refused to give me a chance. So I asked the younger kids if I could play with them instead and I started to slowly get quite good. From there I got better and better.’
The turning point in his life came in 2003.
‘A charity named Aparajeyo Bangla, which provides shelter for street kids, gave me a bed and allowed me to stay there,’ he says. For the next 10 years he remained there until they moved him to a shelter for older boys.
There, a football coach helped Abdullah pursue his passion and encouraged him to practise.
‘The coach was really into football and he used to encourage me; he suggested I practise more and more. Eventually he started coaching me.’
Initially he played with his hands but the other children suggested he play with his legs. ‘So I did. Over time I learnt to get better with my small legs.’
Abdullah now plays football at the National Stadium on a basic level. Despite having no legs, he can play a good game.
‘People are amazed when they see me play football. They ask: “How can someone play football with no legs?” But I show them. I’m not afraid to tackle or compete against an able-bodied player. I feel good when I hear people comment on my talents. And they pray for me so I can be a great footballer one day. I think I could be a good player if people wish it for me.’
Abdullah would love to play professional football and idolises Cristiano Ronaldo for his style, attitude and talent. But there are not many opportunities for special-needs sports in his area. Abdullah also has to work as he has no family or friends to look after him, so he can only dedicate a few hours a day to training.
For eight hours a day Abdullah works as a luggage porter, and earns 100 taka (about Dh5) a day in order to pay for his meals. He says: ‘My shelter home provides one meal a day but I have to pay for everything else.
‘So I have to work to earn money and buy food to live and carry on with my passion. I will starve if I do not work. I have no one to look after me or support me so I cannot play football all day.
‘If given a chance to play professionally, I will avail the offer by any means but who will ever help me? It is a dream to take my talents further but I can only dream about it.’