Footless goalie inspires fans around the world

Eman Sulaeman in action during a futsal match in Indramayu, West Java, recently. The 30-year-old Indonesian, born with no feet and just one full leg, is wowing crowds at home and abroad with his "cat-like" reflexes, and knocking home a powerful messa
Eman Sulaeman in action during a futsal match in Indramayu, West Java, recently. The 30-year-old Indonesian, born with no feet and just one full leg, is wowing crowds at home and abroad with his "cat-like" reflexes, and knocking home a powerful message about people with disabilities.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

INDRAMAYU (Java) • When Eman Sulaeman begged his parents to let him play football, the couple worried that their young son - born with no feet and just one full leg - would be mocked.

But two decades later, the 30-year-old Indonesian goalkeeper is wowing crowds at home and abroad with his "cat-like" reflexes, and sending a powerful message about people with disabilities.

"I cried for days, begging them (my parents) to buy me a ball," he said at a recent match in the small town of Indramayu, around 220km east of Jakarta.

"They relented and went out to find me a cheap plastic ball."

Sulaeman's fans were out in force at the futsal match - a five-a-side game played on a hard pitch with hockey-sized goals and a less bouncy ball. They snapped pictures and cheered as Sulaeman protected his net by shifting quickly on stumps and his one leg - the other limb is missing from the knee down.

Young fans waited for a selfie with their hero. "He is very inspiring... He really motivates me," said Muhammad Faisal Bahri, 18.

STRONG MOTIVATOR

He is very inspiring. Although he's physically very different from the rest of us, his spirit remains strong. He really motivates me.

MUHAMMAD FAISAL BAHRI, on his hero Eman Sulaeman.

It has not been easy for Sulaeman - a big fan of former Manchester United keeper Edwin van der Sar - who had to train tirelessly to get to where he is. "I spent a long time learning to walk in balance before I was able to kick the ball," he said.

His perseverance paid off, with friends asking him to join the local football team as he completed an electronic engineering degree.

"Football is like my wife. My girlfriend is even jealous of it because I love it too much," he laughed.

Despite the challenges posed by his birth defect, Sulaeman never considered prosthetic legs.

"I don't even like wearing shoes. The only time I wore shoes was for a match in Scotland," he said, adding that it was to allay organisers' safety concerns.

In 2016, he joined the Indonesian team at the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow. The annual event aims to raise awareness about homelessness and usually involves homeless players as well as drug addicts, asylum seekers and disabled athletes.

An instant sensation, Sulaeman was crowned the competition's best goalkeeper.

"It was unreal. My first time ever being abroad and I was named the best goalie," he said. "The crowds and even all the organising committee members clapped for me. I was really touched.

"Football really embraces every part of our society," said Sulaeman, who runs an electronics repair shop. "People with disabilities like me and poor people can all unite without being... stigmatised."

He dreams of competing in a major event like the Paralympics one day, and hopes he will continue to be an inspiration. "We must stay confident and motivated to bring out the potential in ourselves. Although we (people with disabilities) have limitations, within those limitations there are extraordinary things."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Footless goalie inspires fans around the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe