Arsenal amputee footballer Isaac Addai says he “would not be the player I am today” without the opportunity to compete in sport at school given to him by Panathlon.
Isaac, 23, was voted Arsenal’s ‘Player of the Year’ last season as the Gunners won the England Amputee Football League Cup. He performs tricks for fans on TikTok and is targeting a place in the England international amputee squad.
Isaac’s story began in Ghana when he was born with a condition in his right leg that was operated on, but the surgery left the leg locked in a straight position. It meant Isaac was unable to run properly or take part in mainstream competitive sport.
He moved to Dagenham, east London, and competed in his first Panathlon aged nine. He says his achievements in our competitions earned him respect from his peers and laid the platform for his current playing and coaching career in football.
“Without Panathlon, I wouldn’t have got involved with physical competition and I would never have pursued the amputee football career,” he says. “It was definitely a very important thing for me when I was a kid.
“Panathlon allowed me to gain respect in school, then as a young man, even though this sounds silly, it earned me respect on the streets. People took me a bit more seriously because I could do these athletic things.
“They saw my medals, my results and my improvements in PE and they thought, ‘Take away the leg, you’re actually good!’ Back then, I wanted a career in sport and was trying to figure out how I could get to the next level. If I didn’t do Panathlon, that mindset wouldn’t have been there. I would still like football, but I’d only have watched it.
“Panathlon gave me a chance to show that I could compete and – this is going to sound a bit arrogant – to show that I’m the best! I just wanted to prove myself and if it wasn’t for Panathlon giving me that chance, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
After moving from Robert Clack School to Havering College, he got the chance to be a Panathlon Young Leader.
Recently, Isaac’s ‘Panathlon journey’ came full circle when he joined a team of Young Leaders from Arsenal in the Community at a primary Panathlon at Islington Tennis Club.
“It was very nostalgic to come back to where it all started,” he said. “The team who won were so excited lifting up the trophy, like they’d won the Champions League! It was great to see how much it meant to them.
“It meant exactly the same to me as a kid, so it was great to see it hadn’t lost that special meaning and feeling. I loved being a leader, but I was itching to get involved and compete myself!”
As a competitor, Isaac competed in five Panathlons at primary and secondary school in Dagenham, including our prestigious London Final at the Copper Box Arena at the Olympic Park.
After leaving school, Isaac did a few acting jobs but was “frustrated and disheartened” that he wasn’t able to play competitive football. He briefly forgot about his sporting ambitions, until a film shoot in 2020 for BT with the England team led to him being put in touch with the England Amputee Football Association.
He began training with Arsenal. It was a revelation. “When I saw these guys on crutches playing football I thought, there’s been football opportunities for guys like me this whole time and I didn’t even know!”
Shortly afterwards – on 4 May 2021 – he had his leg amputated. He says: “The amputation allowed me to rekindle that energy I had as a kid who loved sport. It was the last hurdle removed. After that, nothing and no-one could hold me back.”
He ignored doctor’s orders and rushed back to training only two weeks after the operation (“I didn’t want to get left behind!” he laughs) and is now coaching children with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities for the Arsenal Foundation, having taken his coaching qualifications.
Arsenal’s amputee team plays in the EAFA National League and one of Isaac and the Gunners’ ambitions is to qualify for the amputee Champions League and play in Europe.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” he concludes. “Everyone is counted out and doubted in life, but now I’m playing in one of the biggest teams in football history and I was Player of the Year in my debut season. I’ve even met the owners! It’s insane. And when I look right back, it was Panathlon where it all began.”
Everyone at Panathlon wishes Isaac good luck and will be following his football career with great interest!