Black adhesive tape is wrapped tightly around a hand roughened by the tricycle it operates every day.
Beneath the goalposts, Abdul jumps and then stretches to catch the ball. His body slides along the dry earth.
A line of buses, burned out by Boko Haram, seem to keep watch over the young goalkeeper.
Here, in Kano, northern Nigeria, Abdul plays a sport known as para-soccer, a form of football played mostly on skateboards by polio survivors.
Like most of his teammates, Abdul contracted polio as a child.
Now, several days a week, he braves the uneven pavements, scorched red earth and erratically driven rickshaws of Kano to weave his way on his tricycle from the home he shares with his family in the impoverished suburb of Gayaw to the city’s sports centre.
“It is not easy at all for polio survivors in Nigeria,” he says. “The country lives in constant tension and we are relegated to the background. It is hard to obtain money and there is little work.”
Abdul supports his family with the $200 he earns a month from playing the sport. But he must divide his time between his team and his studies as a student of science.
As goalkeeper, Abdul has no need for the skateboards used by the other players. He simply balances on the one leg that was not affected by polio.
But the game is physically and mentally exhausting, and the asphalt on which they play scratches at the skin, sometimes stripping it off altogether.
Abdul prepares for it as best he can by working out a couple of times a week.
No pain, no gain
A few metres from the football field, a small shed serves as an improvised gym for people with reduced mobility. Inside, it is all sweat and weights and the spirit of self-improvement. On the wall, a message declares: “No pain, no gain.”
Thirty-three-year-old Sanusi stares out of the window as he wraps adhesive tape around his wrists. He has been on the team for six years.
“Para-soccer is a sport that requires dedication,” he explains. “We need to be in good shape in order to play and avoid injuries, although this is sometimes inevitable. The asphalt burns and we have no protectors.”
For these polio survivors, para-soccer has become a source of strength and freedom. Somewhere between the ball, the skateboard and the hard ground, they have carved a space of their own.
Created in 1988, by Nigerian polio survivor Misbahu Lawan Didi, the sport has few financial sponsors, but has spread to other countries on the continent.
Abdul and Sanusi’s team plays against other polio survivors’ teams in the national leagues, as well as in the international leagues against Niger, Cameroon, and Ghana.
The Nigerian DNA
“Football is in the DNA of Nigerians,” explains the team’s coach, Ibrahim.
In fact, he suggests, “it is the only thing that holds the country together”.
Ibrahim has led the training here for 18 years and says: “Para-soccer gives them an opportunity for self-improvement and makes them believe in themselves again. Few people are concerned about polio survivors.”
But it isn’t easy.
“We barely have means to support ourselves,” the coach explains. “We are always in the search of funding.”
Looking at his hands and knees, he continues: “We have no soccer gloves or protective gear.”
Then, he asks: “Do you, by chance, know someone who would like to sponsor the club?”
Not charity, just chances
Curious observers gather to watch the training overseen by 34-year-old Rabim Lawan. During his 13 years as captain, Lawan has won 15 trophies with the team.
The majority of the players arrive in special wheelchairs that are made a few kilometres away.
Given the difficulty of obtaining a wheelchair that is in good condition, former para-soccer player Abdullhahi Lawna decided to open a workshop to manufacture special chairs.
“Many polio survivors hardly have any economic resources. The majority end up begging on the streets,” he explains. “I used to play in the para-soccer team and one day I was given the chance to open the workshop. I borrowed the land and the money.”
“In a country where polio is among the minor problems, it becomes necessary to support polio survivors – not with charity, but with training and employment,” he continues.
The back of his workshop also functions as a shelter for 10 polio survivors who have nowhere else to go. There are just blankets, a floor and a roof, but for the young men who seek refuge there it has become a home, and those they sleep alongside have become family.
Murtala Abubakar is one of them. “My family lives outside [in a rural area]. I am hardly in contact with them,” he explains. “I came here two years ago with nothing. I was lonely, but now it is different.”
‘Their blood covered my face’
Until recently, the threat posed to Nigeria by polio was grave. And it wasn’t just the disease itself that people were afraid of.
Abbas Ibrahim cannot forget February 8, 2013. His hands shake as they slide into his pockets to find the keys to a now closed vaccination centre in Kano.
That was the day armed men on motorcycles broke into two clinics and killed 10 polio vaccinators.
“We were distributing the vaccines to the health team to start the campaign. It was early, around eight in the morning,” explains Abbas, the chief coordinator of the centre’s vaccination campaign.
“In a second, the room was covered in blood and full with corpses.”
“I was shouting to the vaccinators to throw themselves to the floor and cover themselves. I thought I would die; I fell to the floor in an attempt to protect myself. Their blood covered my face.”
“In front of me, two vaccinators protected themselves under a stretcher,” he remembers. “Only one survived.”
But things are looking up. In July, Nigeria marked its first year without a single new case of polio.
“For the first time in years, polio cases have decreased to zero. Last year, six cases were registered, this year, none. Insecurity is a challenge that limits our mobility but new strategies allowing us to reach more children, even in areas with difficult access, are being implemented,” says Boniface A Igomu, the national coordinator of the polio programme for Rotary International, before declaring: “The time has come to eradicate polio in Nigeria.”