Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
“Don’t treat cerebral palsy as a disability…treat it as an ability” – the credo that has carried Irishman Gary Messett along on a proud and courageous adventure.
The 31-year-old, from the coastal town of Bray in the Republic of Ireland, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at a very early age – but a remarkable spirit and determination has bestowed him with admirable strength, hope and belief.
What’s more, football – the sport he cherishes so profoundly – has provided him with a splendid international career that has earned him accolades, awards and considerable respect along the way.
Gary’s eventful life story starts in earnest at the age of two months, when he underwent heart surgery. Although the procedure went well, there was a flow of blood to part of his brain that caused him to suffer a stroke. Gary was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy – the name for a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and co-ordination, caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during or soon after birth.
During his childhood, with the staunch support of his parents, Gary was committed to finding a strong road forward through football. The young boy played the game as a means of aiding his recovery and making friends.
“I loved football,” he says. “And it was the one thing that I wanted to be good at.”
“I’ve played ever since I could actually stand,” Gary adds. “I’d always have a football, I’d go to bed with a football, I’d wake up and play football with my friends, and then when they went in, I’d still play football by myself.”
The years passed, and Gary, who plays in midfield for amateur club Arklow Town, blossomed into an excellent player – good enough to become a long-serving lynchpin of the Republic of Ireland’s CP team and eventually donning the captain’s armband.
A superb goal scoring record at the time of writing – 55 goals in 85 matches – is testament to his ability. Best player accolades have come in abundance at international tournaments. On two occasions, in 2007 and again this year, he has won a prestigious Football Association of Ireland (FAI) Football for All award.
Gary is a right hemiplegic, which means he is affected only down his right-hand side. “In terms of playing football from a young age, I’ve just adapted to it,” he says. “It’s something that I find challenging day by day, but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything.”
“I don’t see myself as having a disability. I see myself, more so as having an ability in terms of what I have. Hard work, dedication and an awful lot of sacrifice have been put in, and they’ve definitely been rewarded…once I’m in something, I’ll always give 110%”
In August this year, the Irish CP team captured the bronze medal at the European Championship in the Netherlands. Gary was the hero, scoring the winning goal in the third place playoff against the hosts.
Gary pours endless reserves of affection on his little daughter, two-year-old Poppie. He and his partner Hollie like nothing better than to take Poppie to the park to play with friends, or go for long strolls along the nearby beach. “They definitely are a strength – I don’t know where I would be without these two,” Gary admits.
As the oldest player in the national team, Gary is now in the final furlong of his playing career, and is preparing for the 2019 World Cup for CP players in Madrid.
His pride at wearing the Irish green national team shirt has never dimmed. “Putting on the jersey, and having the crest by your heart,” he reflects. “I didn’t realise how much of a dream it was, until you actually turn around with the other players and listen to your national anthem.”
One great wish is that the young players in the squad will learn from his experiences, and that he will be able to leave a legacy for people with disabilities. His football career and life path make him an important role model for younger team-mates, who admire and respect his humility, tenacity and courage.
“To be involved in the sport for so long and to see the younger generation coming up and wanting to know how I do things, and achieve what I have achieved – it’s great. Words can’t describe it, to be honest.”
What would be Gary’s advice to any youngster with cerebral palsy who has aspirations to have a football career, and perhaps fulfil a dream of playing for their country? “I would say that having a disability, yes it’s you, it’s your make-up,” he reflects.
“But the world is your oyster. The opportunities out there for people with cerebral palsy are endless. You can achieve what you want to achieve if you just embrace what you have, because you are who you are, and no-one else is you.”
Gary describes his football career as “an incredible journey”. “I’ve loved every moment,” he says emphatically.
“When I was a kid,” he remembers, “it was impossible to see the accolades I’ve got over the last 14-15 years. Obviously being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a very young age, I didn’t think I’d fulfil any sporting aspects in my life.”
“I’ve overcome obstacles and challenges in my life in general – I’ve had an awful lot of ups and downs, but the one thing that remained with me was that if you focus and do something at 100%, no one can tell you that you haven’t tried.”
The fruits of Gary’s efforts as a footballer can be found everywhere at home. “You have little memories and memorabilia around the house,” he says. “You pass by them each day, and think: ‘You know what? I was there…I did that!”
Naturally, Gary is looking forward to telling Poppie his vast fund of football stories in the years ahead.
“I’ve had a great career…and I wouldn’t change it.”
Read more on CP football on the website of our social responsibility partner, the International Federation of CP Football