Friday, September 27, 2013

A Heart-Warming Sight

India’s blind football team, which had two Malayalis, performed creditably, on their maiden outing, at the five-a-side tournament held in Bangkok recently

Photos: Indian team officials Sunil Mathew (left) and MC Roy; an Indian player in action

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a tense moment for India during the penalty shootout against Hongkong during the visually challenged five-a-side football tournament held at Bangkok recently. The Malayali, Naufal Thandanaparambil Nazar, was about to take a penalty. However, the Hongkong goalkeeper was not visually challenged. Instead, he could see clearly. So, the odds were high that Naufal would not be able to score. But he did not lose hope.

Naufal hit the ball so hard, that it ricocheted off the goalkeeper and went into the net,” says Sunil J Mathew, the secretary of the Kochi-based Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC). Thanks to that shot, India went to the semi-finals, where they lost to ultimate champions, Iran. 

Eventually, India finished fourth, on their maiden outing. The other countries which took part included Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Russia.

This was a B1 tournament. In the B1 category all the players are visually challenged. However, according to five-a-side rules, four players should be B1, while the goalkeeper can be B3, which means he can have partial sight, or be fully sighted. Not surprisingly, all the teams had fully-sighted goalkeepers, except for India. “We wanted to be a sporting team,” says MC Roy, Project Head, SRVC.

The area of play is 40 x 20 metres. There are cushioned boards placed on all sides so that the ball does not go out. It also prevents players from hurting themselves. Before the match, the referee places three layers of bandage on all the players to prevent them from seeing. A game lasts 50 minutes, with a break of 10 minutes. During a match, players can be substituted any number of times.

As for the ball, it is smaller than a football. “It does not bounce as much,” says Sunil. “In fact, it is slightly heavier because there are ball bearings inside it. The sound is audible to the people who are playing.” Before the start, the coaches stand behind the goalpost of the opposing teams and shout instructions to the players as the match progresses.

However, the lack of knowledge about international visually challenged football rules hampered India. “During a game, if a player is approaching the opposing attacker, who is moving with the ball, he has to shout ‘Voie’, so that the player can know who is charging towards him,” says Roy. “That is the only way an attacker can dribble and tackle the other players. And this is the best method to avoid collisions.”

Unfortunately, India received a penalty for making five fouls in succession, because the players would forget to say ‘Voie’. “If the player does not say ‘Voie’, the person who is running with the ball will ram into the defender, and both will get hurt,” says Sunil.

Ranjith Manapparam Sasi from Kerala received an ankle injury during the first match against Hongkong. There was also a collision between the Indian goalkeeper, Vineet Kumar, defender, Gautam Dey, and a Thai attacker with the post. 

“Unfortunately, the posts were not padded,” says Roy. “So they were injured. Gautam suffered a sprain on the arm. He had his hand bandaged, but kept playing till the end. Another player, Muhammad Salim, nearly lost his teeth because of a collision.”

Incidentally, the team consisted of five players from Delhi, three from Bengal, and two from Kerala. The officials included coach David Absalom, with Roy as the ‘blind escort’ and Sunil as the ‘guide’ behind the goal. The SRVC worked in close coordination with the Delhi-based Indian Blind Sports Association.

To develop an understanding between the players, a 10-day camp was held in August in Delhi. “That was the first time the players played against each other,” says Sunil.

Interestingly, the idea to take part came when Sunil was researching on the Internet and came across an astonishing statistic. “A country like Brazil [population: 198 million] has 660 visually challenged football teams, while India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has never put up five people for a tournament,” he says. “That was the impetus to form a team.”

Now, the SRVC has plans to hold more coaching camps in Kochi, and expand the reach of the game by going to North-East India. “I heard that there are a lot of good players there,” says Sunil. “So we will do a road show and pick up the best talent.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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