Jersey No. 4 slammed a right-foot volley to the net. It could be a moment from any football match but this was different. The scorer has never seen a football in life. He is blind.
Fifty players who took part in the East Zone Blind Football Tournament were visually challenged.
All the players in the five-a-side inter-state tournament with rolling substitutions wore blindfolds to ensure that no light entered their eyes. They relied on the jingling sound made by the ball that has a layer of bells inside and got to know each others’ positions from cries of “Voy” (I am here, in Spanish) that all players except the one with the ball called out every two seconds.
Instructions shouted out from the sidelines and from behind the goalposts by two “guides” also helped the players visualise the field.
Rabindra Bharati University student Suprakash Das, who scored twice in the final that saw Calcutta A beat Calcutta B 3-0 and finished with nine goals in the tournament, said he would find it difficult to process so many sounds when he started playing a year ago. “I have learnt to stay calm and differentiate between the sounds. That’s how I am able to get to the ball and keep it on target,” said the 24-year-old.
The games were brisk and the action relentless as there were no throw-ins. Sideboards were in place to send the ball back to the ground, on the lines of ice hockey.
The strikers shot with venom, the defenders made gutsy blocks and players ran into one another but each time someone fell down, another picked him up before going for the ball.
The two-day competition saw two teams from Calcutta and one each from Bihar, Odisha and Mizoram take part besides a mixed team. The matches were great unifiers as Bihar defender Sandip Kumar, 13, who travelled beyond his state for the first time, checked the run of Bipul Biswas, a hawker from Nadia, and India captain Klingson Marak from Tura in Meghalaya dodged past Neerav Jitendra from Gujarat, a player of the national academy in Kochi who was inducted into the Bihar team to bolster it.
Bipul, who plays for the Calcutta A team and has made it to a national meet in Kerala, said his wife Shila, also visually impaired, is upset every time he skips selling papad on local trains for a match. “You can’t blame her. We have two sons to raise…. But I love the game so much that when there is a match and the federation (Football Association of the Blind in Bengal) calls me, I cannot stay away,” he said.
The city had witnessed a one-off exhibition match between Bengal and Kerala in 2016 but this was the first time an inter-state blind football tournament was played here.
Representatives of the Indian Blind Football Federation, which organised the tournament, rued the lack of practice grounds. The Odisha team practises in a park in Bhubaneswar for a few days in the run-up to tournaments.
The Bengal team practises at Rabindra Bharati University but would like a more central location. “We have been promised a slot every week by Extraa Time, owners of the rooftop arena on Russel Street where the matches were played,” said Ajit Kumar Verma, the chief adviser to the Bengal team.
India ranks 29 among 60 countries in blind football at present. “Twenty teams will play the World Cup in 2022. We are trying to improve our rankings to make the cut,” said Sunil J. Mathew, the sporting director of the Indian Blind Football Federation.