Nine months ago, Ibrahima Diallo did not even know that he had cerebral palsy (cp). Now he is preparing to play a starring role for the ParalympicsGB seven-a-side football team at London 2012.
It was only when a team physio spotted his unusual running style after he was called up to the mainstream English Colleges national squad that Diallo was diagnosed with cp.
Although he had never heard of cp before, he said he was “relieved” to find out what had been causing his long-standing fitness problems.
Growing up, as a talented footballer, he had been to a string of physiotherapists to find out why he had problems with long-distance running and flexibility, and with the right-hand side of his body, and why he experienced back pain after matches. None of the specialists had suggested cp as a possible cause.
Despite his fitness problems, he has been playing football nearly full-time while studying at the Bristol Academy of Sport, part of Filton College.
The Arsenal fan admitted to being “shocked” when he heard about the possibility of being drafted into the national Paralympics seven-a-side squad, which is made up solely of players with varying degrees of cp.
He said he “didn’t know what to expect” when he was introduced to the squad, and was unsure how to “adapt and socialise” with his new disabled team-mates.
But he added: “I didn’t have to change anything. I have just been myself and the guys were cool, I felt welcome right from the start.”
Diallo said that he didn’t think too much about disability before his diagnosis, but has now been forced to compare his own impairment with those of his team-mates.
He said: “It really makes you think about the commitment they put into it. It made me push myself a bit more not to moan about my disability compared to others.”
He also admitted to thinking that Paralympic football would be easy, until he had a rude awakening when he played against Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s three top-ranked teams.
Diallo said: “The standard was really high. That was a big surprise. All my friends at college were surprised as well because I showed them the video.”
He hopes that he has brought a “bit of extra quality into the team” and some tactical understanding, and had tried to pass that on to some of his team-mates.
He has found it fascinating working with the team, some of whom have learning difficulties and so “tend to process things quite slow”, while in training it “takes a lot longer for some of the players to understand what is going on”.
He said he will decide his future plans after the Paralympics, but hopes to go to university in September to study IT.
He added: “I am not sure how to balance it at the moment. I am going to try hardest to do both [disability and mainstream football] and study at the same time. I think my mum will stop me from playing at all if I don’t get a degree.”
The seven-a-side football competition starts on 1 September, with the final on 9 September. Britain are in a pool with Ukraine, USA and Brazil.