Ben Roche has played 54 times for the Pararoos – Australia’s only national team for people with cerebral palsy – and captained the team around the world. He spoke to Soccerscene about what the Pararoos have done for him, the future of the team after the exclusion of the sport from the Paralympic Games, and how the footballing community can further embrace the squad.
Q: How has the exclusion of 7-aside football from the Paralympic games impacted the Pararoos?
Ben Roche: For us, it almost instantly had an impact. Obviously, for the young kids pushing to want to play for the Pararoos, their attention has turned to other sports, and for Pararoos players who are in the program who had the ambition to be Paralympians have chosen other paths, which means you can lose key players and things like that. We’ve had to work hard to grow the game and we are probably in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in, in ensuring that we qualify for the World Cup.
Q: Funding has been an issue for the Pararoos, where does most of it come from?
Ben Roche: We don’t actually receive government funding anymore, we used to get a little bit from the Australian Sports Commission, which was cut in 2015 because of their winning edge policy, which means if they don’t think you’ll win a medal funding will be cut or limited. Since then we have survived off donations through the Australian Sports Foundation. With the work of Football Australia, they set a fundraising page and we try to raise $200,000 plus each year to go towards getting a team to a tournament, a couple of camps, and hopefully a national championship to identify the next generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any sustainability for us, we are always pushing to raise those funds and take the program to the next level.
Q: It is a pretty horrific way to fund Paralympic sport, isn’t it?
Ben Roche: Yeah, it came to light this week that the Paralympians don’t get any funding if they win a medal, like the Olympians who win do. The Paralympians don’t get anything for doing the exact same amount of work if not more, and that isn’t the way it should be.
Q: What brought about the change in funding?
Ben Roche: The Australian Sports Commission at the time, they have to allocate across sports, and they probably saw that the sports might be better allocated to individual sports which they thought could secure more medals, whether that is athletics or swimming, I don’t know. For me I am a big believer in football being the game played around the world, and cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability for children in Australia. For me that is perfect, you’ve got the world game and the most common physical disability, what a perfect format. We’ve worked really hard to get that message out there and show what the power of football can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from poverty, or having a disability, or having a different background, football has the ability to start important conversations. For us that is where our messaging comes into it, our goal is to create inclusive opportunities for people across the country. Not just for cerebral palsy and things like that, we want to lead the way for inclusive football in all versions of the game.
Q: How Important has football been to you?
Ben Roche: It has shaped everything I’ve done. I joined the Pararoos when I was 12 years old, and it has taken me around the world. It’s been really eye-opening in terms of that, but it has also put me in front of role models with cerebral palsy and other disabilities who have successful careers, families, social lives, and all those kinds of things. Being able to see that at a young age really shaped who am I today, and gave me the confidence to go and do the things I’m doing. I love football so much that I’ve been working in it, I was working for Football Australia as a team manager because I wanted to be in and around football, and it’s something I am extremely passionate about.
Q: How important is it to have visible role models like these growing up?
Ben Roche: It’s massive, for me it was meeting those role models that shaped me. I launched a few programs across the country for people with disabilities, and the conversations I get to have with kids, and the conversations I get to have with the parents as well, the amount the community means to them is huge. For me to see someone who has faced similar challenges doing great things is the best thing I could have come across. By us having a successful Pararoos program we can hopefully empower and not only support these young kids that may want to play football but support them in their careers and everyday lives.
Q: Could the wider football community better embrace the Pararoos?
Ben Roche: I don’t blame them for not doing so, we weren’t really a common name and still aren’t among the football community, which has been a big push for us to put emphasis through social media and get our messaging out there, to include us in conversation along with the Socceroos and Matildas. I hope that when people do get to see it, it’s something they can get behind. The game is quite fast-paced, it can be high scoring, really physical and we don’t hold back. I’d love to see the Australian football community embrace it more – and I’m not saying they don’t – but the more we can get them behind us the bigger reach we can have.
Q: What is the future of the Pararoos program in Australia?
Ben Roche: COVID has made the last couple of years tricky, just in terms of being able to fundraise for the program. For us we are really interested in taking it to the next level, to not only further develop the men’s program but a women’s program too, which more information will come out for in the next couple of months. We are looking to really create more opportunities throughout Australia, not only have our state teams which are filtering into nationals but also launching academies and programs that will feed into inclusive opportunities. On top of that hopefully we can keep having important conversations around disability.
If you want to help support the Pararoos you can donate through their website.