Playing by the Ear: It’s Time to Cheer for India’s Blind Football Team
The Indian Blind Football team ranks five in Asia and 25 in the world.
Reporter & Producer: Smitha TK
Video Editors: Deepthi Ramdas, Prajjwal Kumar
"Voy, Voy!" a player shouts as he kicks the rattling ball, alerting the other players, and the hushed quietness of the stadium turns into a roar of cheers.
Blind football is a hypnotic game where the visually challenged exceptional players do a lot of dribbling, passing, and kicking leaving the audience spellbound.
The birth of the sport in India began randomly on one day when Sunil J Mathew was playing with a ball. A visually challenged person asked him to pass it over. Mathew placed the ball in his hands wondering what he wanted to do with it. The said person placed the ball on the ground, went back a few feet, and kicked it just like a regular footballer, taking Mathew by surprise. The man told Mathew how he was once a football player but since he lost his vision, he missed playing the sport. That’s when Mathew started his research and decided to introduce blind football in India.
The Indian Blind Football team ranks five in Asia and 25 in the world. They aspire to be the number one in Asia in two years but lack of encouragement and support from the government have derailed their progress.
Blind football is a fast-paced five-player game played by visually impaired athletes and a sighted goalkeeper, using a ball with a noise-making device inside. It is played on a smaller pitch on an enclosed court and involves a lot of dribbling and short passing. The crowd is expected to remain quiet during the play to ensure that players can hear the ball, their teammates and opposition players. All players are blindfolded before a game so that this becomes a 'level playing field' for all players partial or fully blind.
The game was only introduced as a Paralympic event in 2004.
The Indian team has over 12 Members from Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala.
“I asked them, do you dream? And they said, yes we dream! That blew my mind because I always thought that a person's face, colour, and shape are necessary to dream. But the blind dream with sound, touch, and voice.”Sunil J Mathew, Head Coach, Indian Blind Football Team
Hailing from Poor Homes, a Struggle to Balance Work and Play
Many of the players are from economically backward families and are struggling to make ends meet.
"My family situation is not good. My parents live in the village and are labourers," said Vishnu Vaghela, a player from Gujarat.
Due to the lack of support and funds from the Indian government, many are forced to work along with practising rigorously every day.
The sport was started as a new-age way of trying to rehabilitate the visually challenged by the Society for Rehabilitation of Visually Challenged, an NGO started in 2002.
"Captain of the team Klingson Marak’s family was not supportive of him. We met him at a rehabilitation home and he was a very wild person because of being frustrated in life. But we channelled that energy as we knew he was tough and we trained him. He is the iron man of our Indian team," Mathew said.
"Let me tell a success story of the time when we went to Japan. It was snowing. Klingson scored the goal and India won the game. All of us were crying and even the consulate members who were watching us were touched," he added.
Football: A Gateway to a Better Life Someday
The players appeal to the government to recognize the National Football Federation for the blind and further help by establishing blind football coaching centres across the country. The National Federation is registered with the International Blind Sports Association and needs to be affiliated with the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI).
“We haven't got any help from the government. They always base it on something like: Will you win a medal for India?” Mathew asked.
Explaining how sports in India is not a very commercially viable option, he said that through this sport they want to train players and provide jobs through vocational skilling.
"Convincing an employer to hire a blind person is so difficult when there are no jobs for even regular people. We want them to be self-reliant so that no one will have to look at them with charity or compassion. They will play, represent the country, and get jobs as well,” he added.
"This isn't just a sport but their passion. A gateway to a job, a life, and recognition."Sunil J Mathew, Head Coach, Indian Blind Football Team
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