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Brazil may have just bid farewell to the FIFA World Cup, but some of the world’s best Paralympic footballers are already fighting for a spot at their flagship tournament in the spiritual home of the game two years from now. The winner of the 2014 CPISRA Football 7-a-side European Championship, which runs from 23 July to 2 August in the Portuguese city of Maia, will qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the first to be staged in South America. The team finishing second will also earn a spot in Brazil, provided they secure a top-eight place at next year’s world championships.
Football 7-a-side is played by athletes with cerebral palsy and has been in the Paralympic Games since 1984. The Games also have football 5-a-side, which is contested by players with a visual impairment, and whose qualification process will begin in November.
The 11 teams competing in the football 7-a-side tournament in Portugal have been divided into three groups. Netherlands, Ireland, Finland and Denmark make up Group A, while Group B consists of Russia – the current Paralympic and world champions – plus Scotland, Northern Ireland and Germany. Ukraine, England and Portugal comprise Group C.
While Germany left Brazil with the FIFA World Cup, having also left the number seven etched on the memory of the tournament, their 7-a-side team, which was only formed this year, has humbler ambitions. Coach Thomas Pfannkuch’s team is ranked 23rd in the world and will open the tournament against Russia, the world no.1.
“We still cannot quite believe it. All of the guys are very proud and happy that they can board the plane to Portugal,” he said. “We want to learn as much as we can and gain the best possible experience.”
Ireland are hopeful after finishing fourth at last year’s Intercontinental Cup in Barcelona and third at the last European championship. Midfielder Gary Messett said: “A lot of our newer players gained a lot of experience from Barcelona, and we hope it will be of great benefit to them this year.” Manager Gerard Glynn added: “We are quietly confident and focused on finishing as high as possible. Following the disappointment of failing to qualify for London 2012, we are very much hoping to qualify for Rio 2016.”
Portugal won bronze at the Barcelona 1992 Games and their current coach Luís Ferreira is focused on getting his team back into medal contention. “To participate in the Rio 2016 Games is our number one objective,” he said. “It’s not easy, but we need to dream and believe that it’s possible to make it. We’ve been there before and we want to be there again.”
You can follow the tournament, including live streaming of the matches, on the official website.
The European championship is one of four Rio 2016 qualifying competitions for 7-a-side football. The 2014 Asian Para Games, 2015 Parapan American Games and 2015 world championships will also offer places. As host nation, Brazil has a guaranteed spot.
Throughout 2014, athletes from at least 10 Olympic sports and 12 Paralympic sports will earn qualification places for the Rio 2016 Games. This week’s shooting world championships will decide 63 spots for Rio 2016, while four sitting volleyball and five goalball teams have already booked their spots.