Indramayu (Indonesia) (AFP) – When Eman Sulaeman begged his parents to let him play football, the couple worried 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 told AFP at a recent match in the small town of Indramayu, some 220 kilometres (135 miles) east of Jakarta.
“They relented and went out to find me a cheap plastic ball.”
Sulaeman’s fans came out in force at a recent match at a local court for futsal — 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.
Cheers turned into a roar as he kicked the ball into the back of the other team’s net, capping off a win for his side.
Young fans waited for a selfie with their hero.
“He is very inspiring,” said 18-year-old Muhammad Faisal Bahri.
“Although he’s physically very different from the rest of us, his spirit remains strong. He really motivates me.”
It hasn’t been easy for Sulaeman — a big fan of former Manchester United keeper Edwin Van Der Sar and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo — who had to train tirelessly to get where he is.
“I spent a long time learning to walk in balance before I was able to kick the ball,” he said.
– ‘Really touched’ –
Sulaeman’s perseverance paid off, with friends asking him to join the local football team as he completed an electronic engineering degree.
“Football for me is just like my wife. My girlfriend is even jealous of it because I love it too much,” he laughed.
Still, some were not convinced.
“At my first tournament, the other team’s manager doubted me and asked if I really could play,” he said.
Despite the challenges posed by his birth defect, Sulaeman never considered wearing 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 football tournament is aimed at raising 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.”
British media at the time praised Sulaeman and his “cat-like reflexes”.
“Football really embraces every part of our society,” he said.
“People with disabilities like me and poor people can all unite without being looked down upon or stigmatised.”
– ‘Don’t be disheartened’ –
Sulaeman’s talents have caught the attention of West Java’s sports agency, lifting hopes that the government might boost its so-far lacklustre support for disabled athletes.
“We’ve recently learned that our disabled athletes have extraordinary skills and they have opened our eyes that if they’re given equal opportunities, they can achieve anything,” said agency spokesman Dani Ramdan.
Sulaeman — who runs an electronics repair shop — is determined to spread his love for the sport by establishing a futsal lover’s community in his hometown Majalengka and coach football at several local junior high schools.
He dreams of competing in a major event like the Paralympic Games one day, and hopes that he will continue to be an inspiration for other disabled athletes.
“We must stay confident and motivated to bring out the potential in ourselves,” he said.
“Although we (disabled people) have limitations, within those limitations there are extraordinary things.”