They are Australia’s national sporting heroes most of us are yet to hear about.
- Powerchair football’s 2022 World Cup was officially launched in Sydney on Thursday
- Australia are ranked fourth in the world behind France, the US and England ahead of the World Cup that will take place in October next year
- Poweroos’ Abdullah Karim has been dubbed the world’s most valuable player despite Australia’s world standing
The Poweroos play football in electric chairs, operated by any means they can — some with hands, some with toes, some with chins, others with tubes and wires that connect to facial muscles — the only muscles they have that work.
They challenge themselves against opposing teams and, in the process, challenge any misconceptions people might have.
The Poweroos are Australia’s highest-ranked football team and the reigning Asian Champions. They finished fourth at the 2017 World Cup and hope to go all the way to the top when Sydney hosts the COVID-delayed next edition in October 2022.
The world’s most valuable player is Abdullah Karim.
Being awarded that title was quite a feat considering he doesn’t play for any of the top three teams — France, the US or England.
He plays for Australia and says he was shocked to be named MVP.
“Very surprised, you don’t go to a World Cup and expect to be the world’s best,” he told The Ticket.
Australia’s captain, Dimitri Liolio-Davis, says everyone in the team stands out for unique reasons, but Abdullah is at another level.
“Abdullah is the most individualistic player out of all of us,” Liolio-Davis says.
“I feel like this [powerchair football] has really taught him how to still be able to have that x-factor, but in a team environment.”
Karim is currently being pursued by many of England’s Premier League teams where competition is so developed that there is promotion and relegation between the two-tier system contested by teams like Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle and Nottingham Forest.
In Australia there are state-based competitions with the support of most of the A-League teams, such as Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, Perth Glory and Brisbane Roar, and an annual National Championship from which the team is selected.
Goalkeeper Andy Waite has forced his way back into the Poweroos line-up after last playing in the 2013 World Cup.
“I’m actually surprised to be in this team because there are so many great players,” Waite says.
Waite says playing powerchair football requires all the usual skills, like ball control, but has an added layer of expertise, such as “being able to move your wheelchair around and being able to get the pass off”.
“And like most sports, getting the team to gel together and find that camaraderie with everyone is also important,” he said.
Waite has his hair styled into a hot pink mohawk.
He says it’s not designed to make him stand out on the court but, “more to just cover the grey hairs” as he pushes for his spot against younger players.
National coach Peter Turnbull says the confidence from playing the game has impacted incredibly on the lives of the players.
“It’s a huge boost to self-confidence,” he says.
“My son’s got a science degree, he’s studying his masters and they want him to do a PhD.
“Rebecca Evans [the only female in the squad] has a degree in psychiatry.”
Evans plays for Perth Glory with fellow West Australian Sarah Kerr, cousin of Matildas superstar Sam Kerr.
Evans says playing the sport has connected her with people all around world.
“I stay up all night watching Chelsea because I’m a massive Chelsea fan and I’ve got friends that play in the powerchair league over in England and I lie awake in the middle of the night so we can watch Chelsea games together and chat online.
“We talk tactics and trade secrets, things like that … it’s opened myself up to a wider variety of friends, people and community.”
Former A-League player Dr Andy Harper is chairman of the organising committee for the 2022 World Cup.
“Football is the only sport on the planet that can morph as people meet it — on a street, in a park, in a stadium, on a beach, in an alleyway, on a court, in a chair — in a chair powered by electricity because their bodies can’t manoeuvre that chair,” Harper says.
Harper says the organising committee wants to achieve twin goals from hosting the 2022 World Cup.
“Out of love and respect for the players and their families to give them the best opportunity they can have to be champions and celebrated as champions,” he says.
The team knows winning will be a challenge, but they are use to challenges.
Captain Liolio-Davis says moving from fourth in 2017 to first in 2022 will require commitment.
“It will take a lot of hard work,” Liolio-Davis told The Ticket.
“France, USA, and England they were next level, you could clearly see a gap.
“If we can bridge that gap I’ll be very happy. With homecourt advantage anything can happen.
“Who knows, maybe a little bit of jet lag will be on our side as well, and maybe we can do it.”
Karim also points to the impact of having a homecourt advantage.
“France won the previous world cup in 2017… they’ll definitely be looking to go back-to-back,” Karim says.
“Obviously, we need to work hard for that as well.”
Despite being the world’s best powerchair footballer, Karim describes himself as a “rugby league head”, supporting the Newcastle Knights.
He was asked whether the tables might be turned in October 2022 with instead of Karim sitting in the crowd cheering on his team, the Knights might travel to Sydney to cheer on their fan and his Poweroos mates.
“I’ll have to give Andrew Johns a ring, or maybe Matty Johns, ’cause I think Matty’s more of a social guy than Andrew, but I hope so, that would be awesome,” he says.
A sentiment shared by many.