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Monday , September 12 , 2016
 
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Maidan debut for blind football

The players were wearing blindfold, the ball made a jingling noise, the goal was smaller than usual and almost everyone on the pitch and on the sidelines shouted every few seconds.

A motley crowd had gathered on the Maidan on Sunday morning to watch eight blind young men play football. The ground was slushy, there were collisions galore and passes often did not reach their destination but a smile never left the lips of the players, enjoying their rare moment in the sun.

The match that saw Bengal defeat reigning national champions Kerala in a tiebreaker marked the Maidan debut of blind football at a time eight teams are fighting it out at the Paralympics in Rio.

The five-a-side sport is played in 40mX20m arena, just like futsal, and has rolling substitutions like basketball.

A small crowd that had gathered around the Parsee Club off Mayo Road, where the 25-minutes-a-half match was played, broke into applause every time a shot was on target.

"It's unbelievable how they (the players) are able to understand where the goalpost is or even where the ball is. What they are doing is amazing," declared Sutirtha Basu, a young cricketer who had stopped to watch the action.

He was also fascinated seeing that when someone fell in a collision, the other person stopped to pick him up, foregoing the advantage he would have had if he just carried on.

Bengal and India defender Goutam Dey, 26, who made many crucial interceptions in the match, explained that the four blind players in each team visualised the goalposts, the position of the other players and the position of the ball by just keeping their ears open to:

Jingling sound made by the ball

 "Voy" (I am here, in Spanish), which every player except the one with the ball calls out every two seconds

Instructions from the goalkeeper, who is sighted, and two "guides" from outside the field (see chart).Apart from the goalkeeper, the players in each team are blind and wear a blindfold to offset any possible visual advantage.

The match was organised by the Kochi-based Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC) and two city organisations working with the blind in association with the Calcutta Ladies Circle 3.

The game has taken the likes of Dey and Gautam Bind - who starred in Sunday's triumph for Bengal - to Spain, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan to participate in multi-nation tournaments. They have done well enough in such meets, which started in 2013, to be ranked 25 by the International Blind Sports Federation.

The players are, however, not sure how long they will be able play the game as they don't have jobs and earn nothing from the sport.

Lack of funding was evident in the absence of sideboards, which are basic to a blind football arena, at Sunday's game. The 1m-high board is kept at 15 degree angle, leaning backwards along both touchlines. This helps knock the ball back into the field, so there is no throw-in.

In the absence of the sideboards, Sunday's match saw kick-ins.

"Sideboards cost Rs 3 lakh," said M.C. Roy of Kerala Blind Football Federation, which has a facility with sideboards in Kochi.

Coaches and officials of both teams stressed the need to popularise the game. "Blind soccer is played at some schools and organisations in and around the city but there is no system in place for talent scouting," said Asif Iqbal of the Welfare Society for the Blind, who liaised with the SRVC to organise the match.

Two organisations from Bengal used to send a team each to the nationals till last year. This year they came together to send one team to the nationals in Kochi, where they lost to Kerala in the semis, the same team they defeated on Sunday.


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