Pararoos skipper David Barber celebrates 24 years of captaining his country with game against USA

As a kid, David Barber dreamt of captaining Australia’s cricket team.

Plenty of Australians will recall having the same dream but not many can lay claim to realising it.

And Barber is among those who were left disappointed.

However, cricket’s loss was football’s gain: Barber has captained the Pararoos since the team’s inception just prior to the Sydney 2000 Paralympic games, making him the world’s longest-known national sports captain, at 24 years and counting.

“It’s something I’m really proud of,” Barber told The Ticket after a training session ahead of this week’s friendly against the USA, ranked fourth in the world.

“I guess one of the things that really pushed me the most is I just love playing football. I really love the game. I love being out there with the group … being a leader is something that I enjoy … it’s the most fun job in the world. 

“I always dreamed of being Test cricket captain one day, this is the closest I could get to it. But it’s a special thing, it’s a special honour.”

CP football is a seven-a-side game played by those with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders, ranging from stroke to an acquired brain injury.

Some countries are better funded than others, some players are even compensated as professional athletes: Australia is not in that category.

If Barber could add another strand to the already substantial legacy he will leave behind when he decides to call it a day, it would be that future teams wouldn’t have to juggle work, mortgages and family commitments as well as paying their own way to represent the country in international competitions.

Daniel Campbell (right) is being tipped as a possible future Pararoos captain.(Supplied: Football Australia/Marianna Galanopoulos)

“I couldn’t honestly still be here without the support of my kids, and my wife, and my parents and everyone else that digs in so hard when we’re away for so long,” he said.

“It creates a lot of challenges … you know, financially, you have commitments, and you waste all your annual leave on soccer instead of taking them on a holiday and that can be tough.

“I mean, that’s the thing about our team — every player has been through a journey already just to get here. 

“Some of them are born with incredible challenges, even myself.

“I faced so much hard work in the early years, just to get recognised, just to be able to play on the same field and not be made fun of.

“Back then, that was kind of how it was. So, you really work hard through adversity, and you have to have a strong character … and every kid that we’ve got here has the same strength of character. It’s something that defines them.”

In a country where weekends are dedicated to sport, being a kid with challenges can be “brutal”.

Barber’s own childhood memories are still clear.

“It was genuinely tough. I was very lucky my parents, while we didn’t have much, always gave me every opportunity to at least test myself,” he said.

“Even when I failed, they never said: ‘Don’t do it because it’s going to be too hard’. They let me find out for myself and built that strength of character that serves me pretty well today. 

david barber and daniel campbell hug Ben Roche (left) has been a long-term Pararoos teammate of David Barber.(Supplied: Football Australia/Marianna Galanopoulos)

“It was brutal sometimes, you know, you get dropped out of teams because you just … you know, the coaches worry you might get hurt, or they’re worried that you may not be able to keep up.

“And I say to every parent [who] I meet out there that has a kid [who] faces the same challenges: ‘Please just let them try’. 

“Let them go out there and test themselves, they’ll set their own boundaries. They’ll know exactly how hard they can push themselves and they’ll be better for it every single time. 

“The number of times I got knocked back, but I just refused to stop.

“And my parents never let me say, ‘No’. They always pushed me to be better and allowed me to find that for myself. 

“Cricket was my first love. I kind of fell into football by accident as a young kid because my neighbour took me to training one day … the first time I got out there and kicked the ball properly, I loved it. 

“Even when I got knocked out of every team, every time I was not selected, I still came back the next day and tried again. And here I am today. 

“I’m incredibly lucky that I had so many good people early on, that helped me do what I needed to do to grow stronger and grow better and [kept] encouraging me even when I was pretty beat up.”

Barber thinks he’s the lucky one. He doesn’t realise how lucky the rest of us are to have him as a leader and role model.

An approach was made to Guinness World Records last year to have Barber recognised for his longevity as a national captain.

“They knocked me back. They said it didn’t meet the criteria officially for a world record. So I’ll ask the question again this year and, hopefully, they take a closer look,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine why 24 years of captaining a national team is not worthy when recognition is given to records that include balancing the most eggs on the back of one hand, or the fastest time to find and alphabetise the letters in a can of alphabet soup.

They even recognise the farthest tightrope walk in high heels.

“Yeah, [they recognise] how many ping pong balls you can catch on your head in a minute,” Barber jokes.

“My kids watched that one on YouTube just the other day. But … hopefully they can clarify that in the future and, yeah, we look forward to making a mark that someone else can chase in the future.”

The Pararoos opponents this weekend, the USA, boast one of the most-professional set-ups in CP football, but Barber said the Australians would push them all the way.

“Yeah, they’re a huge challenge. They had their best year last year in a tournament and we look forward to really stepping up against them,” Barber said. 

“They’re going to be a great test for us, as to where we’re at in in our preparation for the Asian championships later this year.”

Asian Championships and World Championships are the big events that continue to motivate Barber.

However, 24 years ago, it was the Paralympic Games in Sydney that first inspired him.

David Barber makes a tackle in a match, jumping into an opponent David Barber’s inspiration to form a team for Australia came ahead of the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.(Getty Images: Allsport/Adam Pretty)

He and some of his mates realised Australia could qualify automatically as the host nation, but they needed to register a team. 

That’s how the Pararoos were born: A training camp in 1998 led to their first-ever games in 1999.

“It was here in Sydney, actually. We played what were called the Southern Cross games in 1999,” he said.

“And as a kid, I always had these dreams [that,] if you make your debut, it would be in some grand stadium with a big crowd.

“We played on a hockey pitch in North Ryde. In a little shed that was the dressing room, I got my first armband and first shirt.”

Hardly the bright lights and fireworks that the younger Barber had dreamed of. 

“But, from there, we really pushed ourselves to do the best we could. Obviously we went on to the Paralympics, which was incredible … probably one of my favourite memories of all time,” he explained.

“We built a team from scratch and, from that point onwards, we just built for something stronger and better. Obviously, there’s been a thousand ups and downs.

“In 2013, we didn’t have a team at all. Our program lost its funding and then through amazing support from the FA [Football Australia] sponsors, donors and every person around the country that’s got behind the group, we’re back and we’re bigger and better than ever.

“This weekend we get to play in front of a home crowd. Last time we were there, we had 1,500 people.

“This time it’s on live TV. I couldn’t be prouder of where [the team] is right now. 

“We’ve got some amazing people working so very hard in the background to make it happen for the players, and the players give everything they’ve got in return to make sure that it’s worth it for every single person not just now, but every kid that is sitting in the stands [who] watches and goes: ‘I could do that too.’”

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