We first heard of blind football on the crowded yellow Berlin metro. People made comments while the scores kept changing on the screens. You could even notice a malicious smirk on some of the faces.
“Blind people play football?”
“Of course. This guy scored two goals.”
“You’re pulling my leg!”
“I’m not. There’s a game on Anhafter Sportplatz tomorrow.”
We went to the playing field the next day. There were only a few spectators on an improvised modular stadium and a few Belgians running with black masks over their eyes. Completely blind.
Is this real? We, as most of the other countries, are still having a hard time establishing the rights of visually impaired people. We have installed tactile paving here and there and then we planted a line of trees, put a litter bin or even parked a car on these surfaces, whereas the people here are ready to protest about how we are capable of doing so many things only if we have the support of our surroundings.
They seem to be completely bewildered at first sight. However, we soon begin to realize that we as spectators are far more disoriented than they are as players. Since it is extremely hard for them to find their bearings in silence, they make corrections in their locomotion with the aid of simple and ordinary sounds such as voi, voi, voi or tam, tam, tam.
Quite incredibly, they use their voice and hearing to create an image of the space and run from one side to the other with no problem whatsoever. There is no tripping or bumping into one another. They are so accustomed to each other that they even have time to crack a joke now and then.
When you use sounds to create a mental image of the space around you, it doesn’t matter what sex you are. This is why men and women can train side by side. They compete in the same manner. However, there is a clear difference between those who have lost their eyesight and those who have been blind since birth. People who were born blind have a considerably more developed sense of space and they rely on other senses to compensate for their impaired vision.
A regular playing field for some, a sound arena for others
The playing field is enclosed with boards. These are not ordinary boards. Each player is able to determine his position on the field by snapping his fingers. This is why the atmosphere on the field is similar to that on the tennis court. There is no noise, because it can only confuse and distract them. After only a couple of minutes, it becomes crystal clear that this is a sort of sound arena and that every applause and even a whisper resounds differently in their ears.
This special form of orientation with the aid of finger snapping and shouting is one of the first techniques that a child learns on blind football training sessions. During the first few months, the focus is entirely on creating a mental image of the space through hearing.
The ball is by no means similar to the one we are used to seeing. It is filled with small rattles, so it makes a jingling sound when it moves. Yes, the ball is actually a sort of a rattle and to a trained ear it produces a completely different sound when it makes contact with the boards, the leg or the head, when it is in the air or when it is rolling on the ground, when it is at a distance of 5 or 20 meters. To the rest of us on the stands, it is just a regular ball that rattles as if it were broken.
Even though this sport was first introduced to the Paralympic games at Athens 2004, this kind of ball is not a novelty. The first rattle ball was designed by the visually impaired veterans at the end of World War I. They had to find some way to kill time in the hospital. The first rattle ball was pretty dangerous – it was embossed with metal bottle caps from beverages such as Coca Cola.
The goal and the guides
This is a five-a-side game. However, there are more people involved in the game than you can notice at first glance. The players are not independent and this is most obvious when it comes to the goal. Moving up and down or left and right can be disorienting. This is why there’s a guide behind both goalposts who assists in directing players. He actually prevents some comic situations from occurring. These include a player shooting at his own goal or even worse shooting a ball from the centre spot onto the stands.
Free kick is a very interesting point in the game. This is the moment when the guide starts hitting the posts with a metal object, thus helping the player to find his bearings and determine how far the goal is.
Simple rules? Everything can be explained. Everything becomes clear and logical when the story is told. A sound here, a sound there. It is similar to this or that. However, when you see a blind guy dribbling a ball and shooting at the goal, you can’t help thinking that these are not ordinary people.
Does this guy have some superpowers? How is this even possible? What’s the catch? How did he do that? These are just some of the zillion questions that people mutter to themselves, fascinated by what they saw. Perhaps a comment made by an elderly gentleman can sum it all up: „I don’t know how they do it, but they can see the ball better than me, even though they’re blind.“
How to play blind football
It may sound trite, but it’s played with heart. Man is really capable of doing amazing things. But not alone. That is why each team is supported by a large number of people, including coaches and guides, various organizations and the state itself, although there is absolutely no profit involved. There may be no profit, but the benefits for creating a system of value are invaluable.
Who knows? Maybe people from all over the world will compete in this form of „art“ one day. Then we could all become submerged into a cacophony of energetic shouts that can only awaken a sense of deep admiration. That could perhaps be the greatest confirmation that we are finally heading towards better days.
The writing of this story was aided by The German National Tourist Board