PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – MacKendy Francois lost a leg in Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake, one of thousands whose limbs were amputated so they could be extricated from the rubble or to stop a dangerous infection.
The 23-year-old is one of the lucky few who have found an unlikely outlet in amputee soccer, a physically demanding sport that advocates for the disabled hope will create new opportunities for Haitians who have lost limbs and are now struggling to survive.
Francois, who previously worked in a factory that was destroyed in the earthquake, now plays defense for the Haiti Men's Amputee National Team, which was set up with the aid of the International Institute of Sport, based in Arlington, Texas, in the aftermath of the disaster.
"It is something I love and God created this possibility for me," he said before a match Monday against Zaryen, another team formed after the earthquake, at the national stadium. "He created something for me to live for right now."
The exhibition match against Zaryen was held to mark this week's anniversary of the earthquake, which left much of the capital in ruins and killed an estimated 300,000 people, according to the Haitian government. The national team won the match 1-0.
Amputee soccer is fierce, requiring enormous strength and balance. The players lunge onto the field, each with one leg pumping furiously toward the ball, their crutches skittering over the artificial turf. Powerful kicks often send the men crashing to the ground, but they jump up quickly and head down field.
"These guys are extremely physical," said Chris Campasano, managing partner of Phoenix Pro Soccer who helped organize the national team. "Other than the loss of the leg, they give 110 percent and are extremely strong and physical guys."
The American Amputee Soccer Association says the game has been around since 1980 and is a thriving international sport with a world cup held every two years. Uzbekistan won the world cup for a second time in a row last year against Argentina in an event held in the South American country.
The rules of the game differ slightly to those of traditional soccer: Each team has seven men on the field and games have two-25 minute halves. Goalkeepers must have two legs, while outfielders run with crutches. Prosthetic limbs are not allowed during play.
There were thousands of amputees in Haiti before the earthquake, many barely getting by in an impoverished country where disabilities have long been a social stigma and few have access to physical therapy. The quake created as many as 4,000 more amputees, but also brought aid from around the world.
One of those who came to help was Fred Sorrell, president of the International Institute of Sport, who started the effort to create a national team — not such a hard task in a country where soccer, or football rather, is a beloved sport.
They eventually recruited 15 players for the national team, including three who lost limbs in the quake and sent a team to the world cup this year in Argentina but didn't win any matches.
Though the Haitian team lost all its games in the tournament, the coaches said they exceeded expectations, given the team had only been formed 35 days prior to the world cup, and had never played a competitive game.
More importantly, the organization are the physical benefits and emotional support for the players. Sorrell said he also hopes to eventually raise enough money for a rehabilitation center that will provide physical therapy and educational training for amputees.