Coach Sympathy: Crippled at age 9, professional football coach at age 18

On a rough sandy playing surface in Tafo, James Eduful is wheeling himself up and down the touchline. He is animated – on the edge of his seat. As he interrupts the training session, he almost falls out of his wheelchair before retreating to the middle of his seat, livid.

“What did I tell you?!” He queried rhetorically.

“When you pass the ball to your teammate, you run into space. Don’t stand there. If you don’t move, you limit your teammate’s options,” James barked out.

To demonstrate to his players what he demanded of them, James left the “comfort” of his wheelchair, strapped his hands with slippers as a makeshift football boot, and joined the action. Supported by one feeble leg and his two hands, almost like a four-legged human – he moved fluidly into spaces, knocking passes around as he received them; even giving a “no-look” pass at one point.

James and his children had to tweak the football rules to accommodate him in moments like these.

“It’s very difficult coaching children. Sometimes I have to get off my wheelchair and demonstrate to them what I want them to do. Because I play with my hands, we have come up with a rule that when the ball touches my leg, it’s a foul,” he said.

It made for a fascinating spectacle as I watched while the man affectionately called “Coach Sympathy” opened my eyes to his true abilities.

For the last ten years, this has been the story of James Eduful, the 30-year old coach dishing out tactics on a wheelchair in Ghana’s Division II league.

At age seven, just like many Ghanaian boys at his age, James had a dream of becoming the next Abedi Pele. But on one evening in 1996, that dream turned into a nightmare as his life changed forever.

“I was returning from the farm with my mother and it was raining heavily. I was six or seven years old, so I couldn’t walk through the heavy rain, so my mother carried me on her back,” James narrated.

“On our way, she slipped, and I fell off her back. But it was not until we got home that we realized I had broken my legs.

“My parents tried to fix it with traditional medicine because they didn’t have money to take me to the hospital, and as you can see, that didn’t work out and now I’m crippled,” James said, with his voice breaking.

James’s tragedy at that early age was only just beginning. Two years after the accident, his mother died just days after giving birth to his sister.

“My aunt took care of me and my sister till we completed Junior High School. It was very tough growing up because she had lots of children of her own,” he said.

James was born on November of 1989, in a small town called Koduakrom in the Tarkwa-Damang District of the Western Region. Together with his nine other cousins, growing up was a constant fight for survival.

“I used to crawl because until I went to Senior High School, I didn’t have a wheelchair,” he said of his childhood.

He navigated the early years of school successfully and completed senior high school in 2007. But with no money to continue his education, James took a drastic decision to leave home.

“Money was not the only reason I left home. I established a youth team there with U-10s, but my uncle used to discourage me. He used to tell me that I’d break my hands too and I’d have nothing to use to crawl.

“He always knew the right thing to say to put me down. One day I just decided to pack my bags and leave for Kumasi to pursue my dream,” James said with a smile.

The dream was to become a football coach. In 2007, James Eduful, affectionately called Coach Sympathy, set up a colt’s team in the Tafo area in Kumasi, training players from U-10 up to U-17. For the last 10 years, each evening after school, Coach Sympathy would gather his players on the grassless gravel playing surface at the Pentecostal Educational Complex.

When I made the trip to Kumasi to meet James, he volunteered to come get me when I got off my taxi at the Pentecost school junction. At first, I thought “what a kind gesture”. But as we wriggled our way through the perilous traffic and crossed busy streets, I soon realized just how magnificent the gesture was.

For 30 minutes, each day, for the last ten years, Coach Sympathy has navigated dangerous traffic to go train his boys.

“It’s very dangerous moving through traffic each day because some of the drivers are very careless. But I love what I’m doing and nothing will stop me. Working with children fills me with joy. When they succeed, it’s like I succeeded.”

James got his first wheelchair in secondary school. He says a movie star bought him the wheelchair he currently uses.

“A teacher bought my first wheelchair for me. Before then, I used to crawl and children used to run away from me whenever they saw me. But now they are used to me. The wheelchair I’m using now, Nana Ama McBrown bought it for me after she learned of my situation.”

Coach Sympathy takes his schedule seriously. I had been speaking to him for 30 minutes; but as the clock struck 4:00pm, he stopped the interview to set up the day’s training session. His 10 kids, aged 10 to 14, formed two lines of 5, opposite each other. Today’s task is a quick passing drill.

The training is competitive. A lot of the kids have football boots on; but none with shin guards. That did not stop the tackles from sliding in as Coach Sympathy barked out instructions from the touch line.

He soon joined the action, serving as a neutral player available, to receive the ball for either side that found him useful.

James has been working as an amateur coach pretty much all of his adult life. He tells me some of the boys he has trained over the last ten years, have gone on to do greater things.

“One of my children was invited to the 2017 Ghana U-17 squad. He plays at Right to Dream Academy now. He didn’t make the final squad; but I was proud that he was even considered in the first place.

Another one has got the opportunity in Europe and currently plays for a Division Two club in Portugal.”

On the rough playing surface in Tafo, training had been ongoing for nearly 30 minutes. I managed to pull three kids aside for a quick word.

“Coach Sympathy is different from all the other coaches. He doesn’t discriminate, unlike my coaches in school. He will play you if you’re good, no matter your age,” Mandela Arhin, 13-year-old captain of the U-15 team said.

“I like him because he doesn’t only teach us football, but always reminds of the word of God,” 11-year-old Dominic Danso Mensah said of James.

“Sometimes when we go to play matches away, he uses his own money to buy us water or food,” 12-year-old Devine Deku said.

It’s not only the kids that have big dreams of playing for the bigger teams around the world. James has told me about his dreams of coaching and helping nurture young talents for Ghana’s national teams.

In June 2017, he took a massive step towards achieving that dream. He was appointed the head coach of a division two club, KSV First Light FC at Kasoa in the Central region.

“I remember when I was being introduced to the players, everyone was wondering how a crippled person was going to coach them. I told them not to look at my disability but to judge me by what I can do.

“By God’s grace, when I took charge at the end of the first round, they were 2nd from bottom, fighting relegation. But by the end of the second round, we finished 3rd on the table.”

James’ efforts have not gone unnoticed by his bosses.

“It was an amazing feeling. I was very happy with the way James turned things around. In fact, he has brought a lot of positive atmosphere to my team and everywhere we go, people are eager to come watch us,” Daniel Nii Tackie, Chairman of First Light FC said.

The team is located in Kojoku, 30 minutes from Kasoa in the Central Region. At first, it appeared the middle of nowhere. But football makes this place come alive. I tracked down two players from KSV First Light FC, Joseph Ephson and Eric McCarthy, both 17.

“I remember when the chairman introduced him, nobody was impressed. We thought the chairman wasn’t serious. But after one training session, our opinions completely changed,” Ephson said.

“He has brought a lot of freedom to the way we play which has allowed us to thrive. The previous coach was a little too rigid,” McCarthy said of James’ style.

Joseph Abayertey is the head coach of Kojoku United, who plays in Ghana’s division 3 league. He’s known James for 2 years now, and he recounts how much influence James has brought to not just First Light FC, but the whole community of Kojoku.

“In this our area, I don’t think anyone can compare to him in terms of coaching. Every time we have a game, I call him to come and watch and give his advice and that has helped me a lot personally,” Abayertey said.

James is active on Facebook with over 1,700 friends on the social networking site. On October 13, 2017, he put up a lengthy post and tagged the Facebook page of the President Akufo-Addo. In the post, he detailed the work he did and asked people to support in providing football equipment for the children he trains. He urged others to share his post to their friends. No one shared the post. Just one comment and 3 likes.

“When I put that post up, I was expecting a lot of people to comment and offer help and all that but nothing happened. But as I always say, nothing will discourage me. I know one day my helper will come.”

“When I see disabled people begging, it breaks my heart; but it’s understandable. It’s not easy being in our situation. But I can never see myself begging on the streets. I will keep pushing until I succeed in this job.

Much like his mentor Pep Guardiola, who redefined the way the modern game is played with his tiki-taka revolution at Barcelona, James will need something similar as he strives to achieve greater heights with KSV First Light.

“I want to play in the MTN FA Cup and do well there and also try and secure promotion to Division One. That’s my target right now.”

It was the American philosopher Andrew Bernstein who said; “Nothing is given to man on earth – struggle is built into the nature of life – the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.” James chose a dream, traversing a field never thought possible for people like him. But there’s no stopping him now as he rolls out tactics on a wheelchair.

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