Top football players with disabilities

Top Footballers With Disabilities

19 min

Life with disabilities has always been challenging, but we started seeing more and more top football players with disabilities overcome their conditions.

All-time top football players with disabilities

Rank Player Name Disability Career Peak
1 Garrincha Deformed spine, Leg length discrepancy 2x World Cup Champion with Brazil
2 Lionel Messi Rumoured autism Winning it all at Barcelona
3 Petr Cech Fractured skull Chelsea’s best goalkeeper
4 Edgar Davids Glaucoma His Juventus days
5 Gary Mabbut Type 1 Diabetes Played 500+ matches for Tottenham
6 Danny McGrain Type 1 Diabetes His 650+ matches make him a Celtic legend
7 Hector Castro Amputated forearm Scored Uruguay’s first World Cup goal
8 Álex Sánchez Born with one hand Played for Real Zaragoza
9 Robert Schlienz Amputated forearm Scored 46 goals in 30 games
10 Gordon Banks Lost an eye Legendary England keeper
11 Damir Desnica Deaf-mute Sent off against Real Madrid for allegedly protesting
12 Jose Castilho Colourblind Over 600 matches for Fluminense
13 David Cotteril Depression Played for Wales on more than 20 occasions
14 Aaron Lennon Anxiety & depression The youngest player in the Premier League in 2003.
15 Danny Rose Depression First senior cap won after a victory against Germany in 2016
16 Tim Howard ADHD, OCD, Tourette’s syndrome The 4th goalkeeper to score a goal in the Premier League
17 Michael Owen Rumored Tourette’s syndrome Scored 150 Premier League goals in 2001
18 Paul Merson Dyslexia Key player at Aston Villa
19 Steven Naismith Dyslexia Big-game attacker for Everton

What counts as a disability?

A disability is any disease (mental or physical) with a long-term effect on the quality of life of a person.

Eight different types of disabilities include various illnesses and chronic diseases:

  • Mobility/Physical;
  • Spinal Cord;
  • Head Injuries;
  • Vision;
  • Hearing;
  • Cognitive/Learning;
  • Psychological;
  • Invisible.

Be aware

Around 15% of the world’s population is disabled, according to WHO.

Although some of the following footballers don’t have disabilities as defined by Law, their conditions are still complicated and hard to deal with.

Depression, anxiety, and other disorders can interfere with their performance, concentration, and social activities outside their football career. Every disease counts, matters, and negatively influences the patient’s life.

Research methodology

Step one: football research

Our team has specialists from different fields such as sports and research. In order to gather all the necessary information for this article, we searched and analyzed:

  • Matches
  • Interviews
  • Press statements
  • News about footballers with disabilities
  • Raports done by sports commentators

Our specialists selected the players according to the number of games they played in the top leagues.

The next factor was the importance of the footballers for the national and international teams and their popularity.

Step two: medical research

Another research key is the medical literature about disabilities and the Law. We read medical journals, articles, and official statistics to understand the conditions better.


What has been classified as a disability or a rare disease by the IE Laws appears in this article.

Last but not least, these selected players are a source of inspiration, motivating people with the same disabilities to believe in themselves.

Some footballers with disabilities take action and help people around them. Another thing they do is to become ambassadors for awareness.

How many people with disabilities play football in Ireland?

How many people with disabilities play football in the UK


In Ireland, about 35% of people with a disability take part socially in sports, in comparison to 50% of people without a disability, according to the Irish Sports Monitor.

Our research into top disabled footballers has brought up a more significant issue

Out of all disabled people in Ireland, several athletes suffer from physical conditions restricting their access to the League of Ireland Premier Division.

Paralympics are a different type of integration

At the Paralympics, the team has only footballers with disabilities, the rules are changed accordingly, and the field is smaller. Two types of Paralympics football are Wheelchair Football and 7-a-Side.

What does the IFA intend to do?

IFA plans to integrate folks with special conditions into this fantastic sport.

They will hire coaches that understand the issues and act on them. The coaches will also help the footballers with disabilities by presenting strategies to win and be comfortable on the field.

IFA’s main strategic objectives for helping disabled football players:

  • Raising the awareness level of Disability Football in Northern Ireland
  • Improving the training methods available at the moment for disabled athletes
  • Increasing the number of disabled football players allowed to take place in sports activities
  • Creating and developing new structures for competitions and tournaments
  • Continuing the development of opportunities for elite disabled athletes to perform and excel

The imperative question: does Lionel Messi really have autism?

The Imperative Question Does Lionel Messi Really Have Autism


There is no medical record shown to the public that proves the fact that Messi has Autism. So, no, he is not autistic.

The rumours spread across publishers and newspapers fast, and everyone took it for granted.

The only thing that can be true is that he had health problems when he was a child.


Another speculation is that Lionel Messi has Asperger’s Syndrome. This information is another unconfirmed theory.

What is Asperger’s syndrome

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of Autism. People with Asperger’s have an increased focus on one thing they enjoy doing. Other traits are engaging in repetitive behaviours and difficulty in understanding human emotions.

Does Messi fit this profile?

Messi is highly focused when he dribbles and when he plays in general. Football can be considered pretty repetitive, and this also strengthens the idea.

Messi is a shy person, which can also be an Asperger’s trait. He prefers messaging rather than talking face to face, even if the person is nearby.

Famous footballers with disabilities who still play

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi


Player profile Facts
Full name Luis Lionel Andres Messi
Born June 24, 1987
Role Striker, Playmaker
Current Club Paris-Saint Germain

Does Messi have Autism?

  • His medical record, doctors, or the footballer himself do not confirm this theory. His growth deficiency is not directly linked to Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
  • Lionel Messi had a disorder called Growth Hormone Disorder. This affected him in his childhood, and the treatment was too expensive for his parents.


  • At 13, FC Barcelona signed with him and paid for his treatment. His treatment was a daily injection with growth hormones.
  • Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or 7 times in the last since 2007
  • Messi scored more than 750 goals in his senior career.
  • He is the only footballer who won 6 European Golden Shoes.

Rumours & facts about Lionel Messi

  • He was called “el Pequeno mudito,” which means “the little mute,” at the age of 9 because he didn’t talk with his teammates if it was not necessary.
  • Stories about him being diagnosed with Asperger’s in Argentina in childhood are hard to believe due to how poor the country was back then.
  • Messi has 18 tattoos on his body. Each has its meaning for the football legend.

Messi’s life

Aaron Lennon

Aaron Lennon


Player profile Facts
Full name Aaron Justin Lennon
Born April 16, 1987
Role Winger
Current Club Burnley

How can depression ruin someone’s passion?

  • In April 2017, Lennon was detained and hospitalized under the Mental Health Act 2007. He received treatment for “stress-related illness.”
  • He talked openly about his mental health with the press after he got better. The footballer declared that he started to hate football and felt stressed and anxious all the time.
  • Aaron Lennon also disclosed that his family started worrying and asking about his condition. He was not a fan of speaking about his problems but felt much better after a 10 minutes conversation with his therapist.


  • Aaron was the youngest footballer to play in the Premier League in 2003.
  • Lennon has over 650 appearances in his career, 21 on the National team.
  • He won the Football League Cup: 2007–08 and was the runner-up for the same title the following year.

Improvement of his condition

  • Clark Carlisle is one of the many who offered Aaron’s help and support. He suffered from mental health issues in 2014 and understood his former Leeds teammate.
  • After the incident, his mental health improved, and other footballers contacted him for help and advice.
  • Each morning Aaron meditates for 15 minutes and does breathing exercises to help with his mental health.

Overcoming depression and falling in love again with football

Álex Sánchez

Álex Sánchez


Player profile Facts
Full name Alejandro Sánchez Lopez
Born June 6, 1989
Role Centre-forward, Striker
Current Club SD Ejea

Law student by night and football star by day

  • Sánchez was born with a physical disability; he doesn’t have a right hand.
  • He was the first professional disabled footballer to appear in a match with only one hand.
  • The top disabled footballer played for Real Zaragoza.
  • Álex Sánchez studied Law at the university.
  • He scored 34 goals in just 44 appearances for Sydney Olympics.
  • Álex will write a book about his passion for football and Law in the following years.
  • Sánchez declared that he was a happy child and was never discriminated against. He was one of the joyful kids who was accepted as he was.
  • Álex Sánchez doesn’t want to have a long football career. He desires to work in Law.

Álex Sánchez as a source of inspiration

Disabled footballer or creative genius?




Player profile Facts
Full name Manuel Francisco dos Santos
Born October 28, 1933
Role Right winger
Famous at Botafogo

Career as beautiful as the birdsong

  • Besides this, in his early childhood, his shorter leg turned inwards and the other outwards. This is why he is among the most famous disabled people and top football players.
  • Garrincha is the first footballer to win Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and the World Cup in the same tournament.
  • He played for 12 years for Botafogo, scoring 232 goals in 581 matches.

Facts about Garrincha’s life

  • His right leg was 6 centimetres shorter than his left foot at birth.
  • In matches where he and Pelé played together, Brazil never lost.
  • His stage name, “Garrincha,” comes from a little brown bird named Wren. His sister called him Garrincha because he was considerably smaller than boys his age.
  • Between ’55s and ’66s, he played 50 international matches for Brazil.
  • The cause of his death is liver cirrhosis because of his drinking problems.
  • There are two movies about his life: Garrincha – Estrela Solitária and Garrincha, Alegria do Povo.

Fun fact

Many people claim that he is the one who inspired the public to cheer “ole” in a football match. “Ole” was shouted until then only in bullfights.

The unstoppable Garrincha

Paul Merson

Paul Merson


Player profile Facts
Full name Paul Charles Merson
Born March 20, 1968
Role Forward, attacking midfielder
Famous at Arsenal

Merson’s life: a rollercoaster in Arsenal’s playground

  • Between 1985–1997 he played for Arsenal. In that era, he had 327 appearances and 78 goals.
  • Paul Merson won the FA Cup, two league titles, League Cup, and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Arsenal.
  • In 1994 Paul Merson admitted that he was had been dealing with problem gambling, alcohol, and illegal substances.
  • Merson was in a rehabilitation program in 1995. The Football Association send him there.
  • He made a movie about his betting addiction to help others who struggle with problem gambling as much as he did.

Facts about Merson’s life

  • Paul Merson was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was little. Dyslexia is considered a disability in the USA, but it is considered a learning difficulty in Ireland. In his childhood, Merson had writing problems because of it.
  • Besides being dyslexic, he struggles in the present with mental health issues due to his gambling addiction and money loss related to it.
  • Dyslexia made Paul’s life even harder. One of the examples is when he had to ask for the help of the cashier from the bank to be able to write the word “thousand.”
  • In 2012, he had surgery to remove a cancerous mole from his back. The treatment went well, and the football legend has no cancer.

Paul Merson’s constant battle with addictions

Footballers with disabilities who faced injustices

Edgar Davids

Edgar Davids


Player profile Facts
Full name Edgar Steven Davids
Born March 13, 1973
Role Defensive midfielder
Current Club Netherlands*

Impeccable tactics, stamina, and passion

  • Edgar Davids was a top professional footballer who played for Ajax, Milan, Juventus, and other European football clubs.
  • His passion for football made him a hard-working, disciplined, and feared opponent. He was also a gifted footballer with pace, power, stamina, and strength.
  • Davids’s nicknames were “The Piranha,” “Tubarão,” and the most memorable one, “The Pitbull,” because of his aggressive style.

Career & life achievements

  • In 99′ he took a break from playing because he was diagnosed with Glaucoma. The high blood pressure in his eyes made things difficult for a period. He overcame the problem and entered the squad of footballers with disabilities.
  • Edgar Davids started playing football with glasses and became a fashion icon in early 2000.
  • The top footballer started his own Street Soccer brand called Monta Street. The brand made clothes for men, women, and children.
  • Edgar Davids won a lawsuit against Riot Games for making a champion skin in League of Legends look like him without his permission.
  • He is the Assistant Manager of the National Netherlands team at this moment.

Who let the “The Pitbull” on the field?

Damir Desnica

Damir Desnica


Player profile Facts
Full name Damir Desnica
Born December 20, 1956
Role Forward
Famous at Rijeka

Bullies, injustices, and a legend

  • Desnica appeared in almost 300 official games for HNK Rijeka.
  • Desnica was born mute and deaf and is one of the few disabled footballers with a disability of this kind.
  • He was sent off for “protesting” in a match between HNK Rijeka and Real Madrid. Referees stole the victory of that game from his team.
  • In 2011 he talked about the incident and how his team was robbed. He mentioned that he couldn’t possibly “protest” because he couldn’t speak.

Desnica’s life

  • As a kid, he was bullied, and the football field was his safe place. He mentioned that he never had problems understanding his teammates because he could read on their lips.
  • Desnica participated in the deaf athletes’ Olympics in 1973 and won bronze.
  • Damir Desnica’s wife is also deaf.
  • Desnica was one of the top football players with disabilities who had to face real difficulties and live a harsh life full of injustices.
  • In an interview, his daughter said clubs often didn’t give him all his earnings, and she had to call the club managers from a young age and demand her father’s rights.

The unforgettable match between Rijeka – Real Madrid

Michael Owen

Michael Owen


Player profile Facts
Full name Michael James Owen
Born December 14, 1979
Role Striker
Famous at Liverpool

Michael Owen: praised for his courage while called a traitor

  • Michael Owen was England’s youngest footballer and goalscorer in 1998.
  • He has over 20 individual prizes won, such as the Golden Boot and Ballon d’Or.
  • In 2004, Owen’s sister Karen was assaulted by two men. They attempted to kidnap her but left her alone after telling them she was pregnant.
  • Owen owns several cars and a helicopter. He owns race horses and places bets on horse races.
  • From time to time, he plays card games in Ireland’s land-based or online casinos.
  • He is a controversial professional footballer, and football supporters called him out for “betraying” clubs and playing for rival teams.


  • Some people claim that Michael Owen has Tourette Syndrome.
  • Tourette Syndrome affects the Nervous System and makes patients have tics. His rumoured disability was never triggered in a press conference or public speaking, but he had some noticeable speaking difficulties in some interviews. He spoke long phrases but without actually saying actual words.
  • Michael Owen’s disability is confirmed neither by him nor his family or doctors.
  • Owen’s son has Stargardt disease, which makes his sight poor and affects his retina.

Diving deeper into Owen’s mind and career

How disability can affect football performance

How Disability Can Affect Football Performance



Disabilities are a sensitive topic everywhere. Crowds give strange looks if the disability is showing, even if we’re talking about top football players with disabilities.

Constraint dealing with bullying and stigma

In addition to the bullying and a world not built for particular persons, famous disabled people must prove that their performance is not affected.

All top football players with disabilities have to work extremely hard to balance their life.

They must adapt to their needs on the field so their life is safe and their team wins.

For example

Disabled footballers with Type One Diabetes, Gary Mabbut and Danny McGrain have to eat more before any match, so their blood sugar won’t get too low. If their blood sugar is low, they can pass out or, even worse, get into a diabetic coma. Fortunately, this didn’t happen so far because they did great in taking care of their Diabetes.

Neurological disabilities & their effects

The top footballers with ADHD, Autism, or Depression must take medication. The prescription pills and diets must be thought of according to the needs of the patients.

But also in such a manner that doesn’t change the hormonal balance in the players’ bodies.

There are many examples where athletes were disqualified because their medication was considered an advantage for their performance. Even though they proved that they were just top football players or athletes with disabilities.

Are there any disabled footballers in the Premier League?

Are There Any Disabled Footballers In The Premier League


At this moment, none of the Premier League footballers from Ireland claimed any medical records showing possible disabilities. But some Premier League footballers have been burnt out or are struggling with mental health issues.

Creating better awareness against sports prejudice

  • Awareness starts with top football players with disabilities and other famous folks talking about their illnesses and inspiring others.
  • It continues with understanding the needs of disabled people and making any football stadium accessible for all of them. For example, each national television and stadium should have a sign language professional who can help a deaf person enjoy the match in real-time.
  • Another step is encouraging disabled communities to perform as much as they can. Including them in teams with normal-functional teammates can increase their interest in football or any other sport.

Share your thoughts with us!

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Is there any disabled footballer outside Paralympics teams?

There were always top football players with disabilities like Alex Sanchez, Garrincha, and John O’Kane in national and international teams. Moreover, there are many footballers with disabilities like diabetes, Autism, depression, and ADHD.

Do people with Autism play football?

Persons with Autism can be exceptional athletes. John O’Kane, a former Manchester United footballer, is one example of a football player with Autism. The footballer made his disability into a successful career.

Is Álex Sánchez disabled?

Álex Sánchez is one of the top football players with disabilities. He has a physical disability; he was born without his right hand.

Is Paul Scholes on the autism spectrum?

Paul Scholes does not have Autism. In his autobiography, written in 2011, he revealed for the first time that his youngest child, Aiden has Autism.

Does Lionel Messi have Asperger's Syndrome?

Lionel Messi has no medical record to justify the rumors about his Asperger Syndrome.

Can people in wheelchairs play football?

Yes. There are specific wheelchairs that make playing easier and help the person react faster. Football played in wheelchairs is called Wheelchair Football, and it’s part of the Paralympics.

How do people with disabilities play football?

Depending on the disability, they can have special instruments or gadgets that make the body more secure and offer further support for the person. People with any other disabilities than physical ones have to take their shots or meds and be more careful during the game. 

Ioana Constantinescu
AuthorIoana ConstantinescuAuthor & Editor at Casino alpha

Ioana's background in the law domain helps her understand the rights and obligations of each gambler and, thus, come up with player-oriented reviews that answer each player's needs. Also, her interest in psychology motivates her to find out more about gambling addiction and its consequences.