Arsenal have given me hope – as an amputee life doesn’t end if you lose a leg
- Credit: Archant
Layth Yousif visits the Arsenal Hub to meet an inspiring set of people taking part in wonderful work under the banner of the club.
It is mid-afternoon. The weather alternates between April showers and bouts of welcome sunshine.
The cannons outside the Emirates glisten in the wet when a shard of light breaks through forbidding clouds.
It might be six hours before kick-off for Arsenal’s biggest game of the season against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid but fans already gather in anticipation of the football match to come.
Yet how many of them are aware that just yards from where they stand, great works occur daily at the Arsenal Community Hub, only a Mesut Ozil through ball away?
Helder Silva is from Portugal and lives in Finsbury Park.
He is a huge Arsenal fan and lives for the beautiful game.
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He also happens to have had his leg amputated through cancer as a young teenager.
A personable 30-year-old he has also played for the GB Disability side, winning a warm up tournament in Poland, before the 2017 European Championships.
He also plays for the England Disability side too. For a while he combined working a night shift in a hotel until 7am before heading to a gym near his home.
It was there he met Luke Howard, Arsenal Disability Officer.
Helder takes up the story: “Luke saw me and asked if I would like to play football at Arsenal. I said I’d give it a try.
“From there I went onto the GB Team. We train in Crewe. Last year we won the warm up competition ahead of the tournament.
“We were the only team that didn’t concede a goal”, he recalls. “We beat Poland 1-0 in the final.
“We then went onto the Euros and finished second. We played in Besiktas Stadium in front of 43,000 Turkish fans in the stands”, he smiles at the memory, before adding with a glint in his eye. “Everyone was booing the anthem.”
The team he faced were funded and are classed as a professional side, while Helder and his team-mates had to raise the funds themselves, simply to go and play.
But he didn’t let financial obstacles overcome him, Not when he showed such courage in facing his own problems.
He recounts the dry details as matter-of-factly – as many who have survived cancer do.
He explained: “I had cancer in my left leg in 2002 when I was 14.
“I spent two years in hospital. I had chemotherapy. After six months I was given a bone transplant from a dead person to help. But it didn’t take.
“In two months I had ten surgeries to help clear up the problems after I had infections.
“After that the then doctor said ‘we could do another transplant’. I just said: ‘No. I’ve wasted two years here I just want to live my life.
“My friends had moved on from high school so I just said: ‘Cut the leg off and send me home.”
After that Helder bravely fought off three more cancers, two in his right lung and one in his left lung.
Thankfully he was given the all-clear in 2006 and moved to England in 2015.
He shrugs it off, saying everyone has their own battles. But to listen to this modest, Arsenal-loving football fan is inspiring.
So is his love of our beautiful game.
“It is just a set of mates playing five a side and having fun,” he says.
The Arsenal team plays against Manchester City, Everton, Portsmouth, Brighton and Newcastle among others.
No Spurs I ask?
“In London only Arsenal has a team,” he says diplomatically.
The fact being testament to the inclusive work the Arsenal Community Programme, the Arsenal Foundation, the Arsenal Women and the Arsenal Disability groups carry out in the North London area – and beyond.
“Not just in my case, but for everyone – girls or boys. You just want to be a footballer when you are a kid.”
I tell him I still think I can play for Arsenal even now. He laughs and adds: “I am so proud to represent this club.
“Arsenal has given me new hope.
“As an amputee life doesn’t end if you lose an arm or a leg.”
It certainly doesn’t.
The popular Helder has also embarked on the highly-acclaimed Arsenal Gap Year programme. He started the intensive training last November to earn his Level 1 and Level 2 coaching qualifications.
He has been busy coaching in nursery and primary schools all across North London this year, four times a week – spreading the gospel of inclusivity, the love of football and sharing the ethos of this great club to a new generation of children in the capital.
The next stage of the Gap Year programme is to go abroad to coach around the world. In his case Bolivia next month to work with underprivileged youngsters.
To bring the simple joy of the world’s game to those who live in deprived circumstances.
He says perceptively: “In England, if we want a ball we get a ball.
“If need bibs or cones we get bibs and cones. In such places – and we have ‘gappers’ in Uganda and Ghana and so many other places – the children may not have access to such things we take for granted.
“The Gap Year is so important because it teaches you that not everything is so ‘colourful’ and ‘bright’.
“I cannot speak highly enough of Arsenal and everyone here. Without them teaching us we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing. Major ‘props’ to everyone.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity. If you have a chance to experience it I would say do it.
“I would never have been given the opportunity to appear on such a stage without the backing from Arsenal. It allowed me to play football.”
Alec Norton is a project co-ordinator of the Gap Year programme across Camden, Hackney and Islington.
He stresses the hard work that goes into representing Arsenal overseas for a three month placement, which could be anywhere from Australia, to South Africa, to the Philippines to Uganda.
The club runs two courses every year, with the next intake being in November. Arsenal are the only club to run such a scheme. Which is testament to the forward thinking of this global giant which has been running schemes in the North London community for more than three decades.
Alec is also keen to dispel the notion that going on a Gap Year is solely for white middle class teenagers.
“It’s a massively positive scheme. For us as a club we want to make our gap year as accessible as possible.
“We’ve already got an extensive network through the work our community programme and the foundation have done already.
“The ethos for this part of the club particularly is Arsenal for everyone.
“We have secured external funding which gives us the opportunity to offer fully funded courses. To be able to give our gappers a living allowance so they don’t have to worry about the financial burden is amazing,” adding, “Helder has been working hard.”
The feedback has been great Helder says.
It is humbling to be able to coach kids. To hopefully inspire them a little bit.
“I thought it was going to be a walk in the park but,” Helder’s winning smiles beams across his face again, “it is so difficult.
“I thought it was going to be easy but to keep the children’s focus is hard. You have to give it everything.”
Helder truly is a twenty first century role model for a twenty first century club.
You can sense his pride at the platform Arsenal have given him and so many others.
Of course he is too modest to say it but it is through his hard work and so many others behind the scenes that the club is able to provide such award-winning programmes.
The club’s first team players have also been supportive. David Opsina, Mohamed Elneny and Alex Iwobi have all spent time encouraging worthy programmes such as the Arsenal Amputee team.
Helder added: “They have been so supportive and interested. Whenever they have the chance they get involved massively with the community programmes.”
Marcelos Hird runs the amputee sessions on a Thursday afternoon. He was also approached by Luke to come on board after providing mental health support in North London.
“I’m quite grounded. Everyone’s the same to me. The guy who ran it wasn’t available one session so I took it over and really enjoyed it.
“The guys are brilliant. They keep surprising me. Mate, it’s just phenomenal. Some of these guys are going to a World Cup because of this.
“I’ve offered to carry their bags but they’re not having any of it.
“It is testament to the club. It can only get bigger. You never lose your passion for the game no matter what happens to you – regardless of your ability or whether you’re disabled or not.
“It’s fantastic to see. I get on really well with them – despite them giving me stick.”
The camaraderie is tangible. One of the guys says to me with a smile: ‘I only want you to take a picture of my good leg’, while standing on crutches. I look down and he only has a left leg. The others laugh, as I do.
Think about your own five-a-side team. It is that sort of team. In that sort of environment.
Marcellos continues: “It gives people confidence. Losing a limb or having a major disability can affect your confidence massively.
“Depression is huge. We’ve all got a threshold. But you can see the guys grow. When the guys first come they are massively out of their comfort zone.
“But give it two or three sessions and they can’t wait to get back because it’s such a positive environment.
“This is one session I’ll never miss.”
Luke Howard, Arsenal Disability Officer – the man who set Helder on his path – is a driving source
His role involves engaging with disabled people in the community. Young people with physical, psychological, cognitive, as well as vulnerable adults in society who might be marginalised.
Luke, from Archway, came through the Arsenal Gap Year scheme.
“It changed my life”, he readily admits. “I didn’t have the greatest relationship with school or formal education.
“Through the scheme I have been able to engage in something positive.” He’s spot on about that.
“Some have been amputees since birth. Some later. But the desire to play football, the desire for camaraderie that comes from being in a team is still the same.
“What’s really interesting with our current group is the diversity.
“The only thing in common at the start is just the fact everyone loves football and the fact they’re an amputee.
“They might have different heritages, different beliefs, different ages ranges. There are also differences in terms of amputees.
“Some might have lower body [amputations] while others may have upper body [amputations]. Prosthetics. People who choose to play on crutches.
“But it’s an opportunity to get them together to play.
“We don’t dictate to them. It’s what they’re comfortable with. Arsenal are incredibly supportive of this.”
For some people who lose a limb a large part of their identity is damaged. Luke and the scheme give people renewed optimism.
The club also looks at how they can support them educationally and help with their future ambitions.
“It’s easy for the club just to give them a kit and say ‘there you go’”, says Luke.
“But we try and help them become the best they can be.
“It’s not about giving anything to people. It’s about supporting them to achieve it.
“Arsenal Football Club really does care,” before adding, as I feel my throat catch, “I have to say Helder is a truly fantastic human being. They all are.”
For more on all the schemes mentioned visit Arsenal.com