Some reflection of the road disability sport has still to travel in Brazil was clearly seen in the Deodora Stadium in Rio yesterday.
Ireland were one of the first football teams playing in the opening day of the 2016 Paralympics, a sport that is not just a game to locals but a religion.
Yet even when the home team featured in the opening game of the seven-a-side football tournament, in Ireland’s so-called ‘group of death’, not more than a couple of thousand fans came to see them.
Yes, the Cariocas who came chanted and sang as their side held Great Britain off 2-1 after leading by two goals at half-time, with Wanderson Silva de Olivereira, complete with a Neymar haircut, their nippy threat upfront.
But the crowd was still disappointingly small for the birthplace of the beautiful game and underlined where Paralympic sport still is in the nation’s consciousness.
Brazil’s British opponents included Michael Barker, a one-time youth training partner of Wayne Rooney at Everton.
When Rooney was making his professional debut at 16 Barker was recovering from being hit by a bus, an accident that left him with a fractured skull and multiple other injuries.
Two more of the British team were also youth players with Liverpool and Birmingham City but had accidents and brain injuries that now leave them plying their sport in a very different and unappreciated arena.
There are two types of football in Paralympics.
Five-a-side is for players with visual impairment while 7-a-side is for players with cerebral palsy which results in varying degrees of co-ordination and balance issues.
Such issues also affect the players’ endurance so game-time is just 60 minutes and there’s no off-side rule in ‘Sevens’.
At times yesterday, Ireland must have wished for one as Ukraine’s Vitalii Romanchuk planted himself in Aaron Tier’s goalmouth and caused havoc for long periods.
Ukraine were runners-up four years ago and, with the 2012 champions Russia now banned from taking part, it was quickly clear why they are now the gold medal favourites.
They went 1-0 up within 12 minutes, and only some heroic saves from Aaron Tier and timely tackles by Luke Evans and Joe Markey kept the score that low in the early stages.
Then Ukraine’s Molodtsov struck for two goals in as many minutes and a fourth goal in the 26th minute left Ireland trailing 4-0 at half-time.
Barry Ferguson’s side improved considerably in the second-half, when the introduction of Dillon Sheridan gave them a more attacking shape but they still lost 6-0 and Molodstov got a hat-trick.
It looked like boys against men at times as Ferguson, a former Irish U20 international and experienced League of Ireland player with Shamrock Rovers and Bohs among others, admitted.
“It was a tough opener, we are playing the best team and they are going to win the gold medal,” he said candidly.
“I thought we did really well in the second half to keep it to two (goals) as you could see they were looking for 10, which is the maximum points you can get on scoring difference,” he explained.
Losing on such a big scoreline was tough but no surprise against the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic champions who train full-time.
The challenge for Ireland now, as always in tournament football, will be to get their heads together for their next game.
That, unfortunately, is against Brazil tomorrow.
“We got a better shape in the second half and stuck at it, kept going; that was the most pleasing thing going in against Brazil,” Ferguson said.
He said the lack of offside rule “ works the same for us as them. They’re just really good players, they’re full-time footballers, they’re at it every day and you can tell.
“We’re approaching the Brazil game much the same, we’re looking to get a result out of it and I’d imagine there will be a few more people here for that and that it will be a better atmosphere.”
For Ireland, and the future of Paralympic football, that crowd needs to be a lot bigger.
A Tier; J Markey, C Tuite, L Evans (Capt), G Messett, R Nolan, C McKee. Subs - D Sheridan for Nolan (38), C Birt for Tuite (38).
A Santos (Brazil)
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