How do blind people play football so well?

Blind England footballers

This is an England football team that would never be booed, with silence a necessary part of the game.

Watching the national blind team train days before the World Cup kicks off in Hereford, there is a hushed quiet.

Whereas mainstream football around the world is played amidst a colourful sonic backdrop - be it chanting, samba bands or a chorus of vuvuzelas - the silence in the blind version of the game is striking.

Etiquette dictates that spectators remain quiet unless the ball goes out of play because players need to be able to hear each other and, crucially, the ball. It contains ball bearings which means its motion makes a gentle rattling noise that helps players to locate it.

Unsurprisingly, the style of play is different too.

Passes cover a shorter distance and, as England defender Keryn Seal explains during the training session, players try not to let the ball stray more than a few inches from their feet, making nimble footwork and a command of the ball vital.

How blind football works

  • The football contains ball bearings so it is audible
  • The goalkeeper is sighted or visually impaired
  • The four other players wear eyeshades to take account of differing degrees of eyesight
  • A guide behind the goal directs players to shoot
  • The pitch is surrounded by a rebound wall and there are no throw-ins
  • Players call out "yeah" and their names to make teammates aware of their presence
  • Rules stipulate the players must call out "voy!" - meaning "I'm here" - as they approach to tackle

"There's a lot more dribbling and close control than in a sighted game. Communication is very important among the players too," he says.

Mesmeric footwork, accurate passing and the ever-present rattling of the ball gives the game a hypnotic quality that makes it easy to forget that the players can't see what they're kicking.

There are occasional reminders - perhaps a misplaced pass allows the ball to roll away, or the action stops - and the spectator's gaze lifts from the players' feet to the unfamiliar sight of footballers wearing eye patches.

A keen footballer before losing his sight, Keryn adapted his playing style for blind football.

The 28-year-old is perhaps more acutely aware of the different football culture in the blind game than some of his teammates, having lost his sight later than other squad members who weren't born blind. A congenital eye defect suddenly deprived him of his sight - within a two-month period - when he was 20.

"It was just one of those things," he says of that sudden, life-changing experience. Football enabled him to channel his "competitive" tendencies and remain active.

Start Quote

I see it all in my mind's eye. In my mind I can see what I could when I was young”

End Quote England skipper David Clarke

The wing-back, who has represented England on 44 occasions, hopes to be among the stars at the World Blind Football Championship which kicks off on Saturday at Hereford's Royal National College for the Blind (RNC).

Much of the host nation's hopes for success in the 10-team tournament rests on the broad shoulders of David Clarke, the team's talismanic captain, akin to a Steven Gerrard figure.

In training, he's often at the centre of the action - his rapid feet delicately stroking, pushing and pulling the ball with balletic alacrity before unleashing a string of powerful, accurate shots.

"It's really important to have good ball control because if you lose control it's very difficult. A lot is about getting your touch right," says David, explaining a playing style that has led to him scoring 108 goals in an international football career dating back to 1996.

"It's about speed of movement - you only have about two or three seconds to react to any situation."

See David Clarke demonstrating his football skills

The veteran striker lost his sight at around eight years of age, having been born with congenital glaucoma. Despite becoming blind at a much younger age than Keryn, who recalls watching his heroes Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp play for his beloved Arsenal, David remembers watching football and says it has influenced him.

"I see it all in my mind's eye. In my mind I can see what I could when I was young."

Like his teammates, the 39-year-old from Harpenden, in Hertfordshire, lives the life of an amateur professional sportsman - a double life he admits can be difficult.

He is a banker and father-of-two, negotiating the rigours of family life and career while faithfully adhering to fitness regimes, nutritional guidance and practising football drills alone in his garage.

Blind England footballers The England team is ranked fifth, but some of its rivals are fully professional

It contrasts starkly with the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the multimillionaire Premier League players who failed so comprehensively in England shirts at the World Cup in South Africa.

The blind squad is hoping to do more than win the tournament. This is the first step in a wider plan.

As team manager Tony Larkin explains, success in the tournament would act as a springboard for the 2012 Paralympics in London and give more exposure to blind sportsmen and women.

"I don't see them as blind players. I see them as footballers. People are amazed when they see eight blind players who don't bump into each other, are moving the ball and shooting."

There are, of course, several challenges.

Start Quote

Dan English

It's improved my communication because I'm part of a team”

End Quote Dan English

The biggest one, he says, was adapting his coaching style after he practised playing with a blindfold. It made him realise the importance of close control, short passes and the need to have a short backlift when shooting since the ball about to be struck is often moving.

The 54-year-old former professional footballer has been coaching blind and partially-sighted football for 15 years and has overseen the sport's development which has included a £21.5m, state-of-the-art sports centre at the team's home at the RNC, as well as the creation of a football academy two years ago.

During the manager's tenure, England has played in seven European championships and five world tournaments. The team is now ranked fifth in the world.

The UK's national blind league has five teams, with a season that runs between October and April. But the game still lags behind other countries. In Brazil, government funding means there are about 80 blind football teams. Players are full-time, as they are in Argentina, France, Spain and China.

The England manager wants the world tournament to create a "legacy" in which playing and watching disabled sports become more commonplace in the UK.

Confidence-building

These sentiments are echoed by 19-year-old Dan English, a product of the blind football academy who has been touted as one of the England's most gifted young players.

"Playing football has helped with my confidence. It's also improved my communication because I'm part of a team," says Dan, who will begin a degree in complementary therapy at the University of Wales in September.

Blind England footballers Some of these players will appear in the 2012 Paralympics

"I think everybody should be involved in sport - especially blind people because it helps with confidence and it would reduce obesity rates among blind people. It would get them out of their house and out interacting with others and doing things they wouldn't do otherwise."

Like the squad's prodigy, its old master, David, also has loftier goals than simply winning games. He wants to make people look beyond blindness.

"I think people are finally getting the message that disabled people aren't interested in talking about their disability. They want to get on with the game.

"We're part of the journey to take blind football in the UK to parity with sighted football and a large part of that will have been completed by the 2012 Paralympics.

"I'd love it if people thought, 'I want to see an outstanding game of football', and the blindness was secondary."

Below is a selection of your comments.

It's great to see blind football getting some attention. I'm visually impaired and love football. I couldn't play much at school because my ball skills were frankly not on a parr with the other boys. I hope that as many young blind people as possible get an opportunity to try out football for themselves. In an age where mainstream education environments are more acceptable, the next football team may well be comprised of players coached at mainstream schools. Come on ENgland!

Darren Paskell, Englefield Green, Surrey, UK

Truly inspiring

Lee, Fife

I wish the team all the very best luck and every success in the tournament. This is another example of where disability doesn't mean inability. I know a blind genealogist. That takes some doing too since it's very much a visual interest.

Jenny, Taunton

Maybe these guys should get a share of the cash that the pro England lot are raking in. They are fantastic - and deserve it.

Em, UK

That is a brilliant story, the players are obviously very talented. I wish I could see more of their match.

Roger, Watford

A truly inspirational news item. Makes our so called professional national side almost irrelevant. I really hope that the blind team (and the 'powers that be') go on to realise their ambitions by increasing the teams, leagues and become professionals.

Julia Crask, Letchworth UK

Great article with comments echoed in Blind cricket which I am involved in. Did you also know that the ECB backed England Blind cricket team are currently playing India in a four match series right now?

Ian Chapel, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire

As someone who is visually impaired I find it offensive that this seems to be written about as if its a circus act, you wouldn't single out other disabled people that play sport to write a story and thinly veil it as a tribute by calling them "heroes" which quite frankly there not in an age where people are dying in wars. What's wrong? Didn't quite have the guts to write " everybody look, this is weird!" Its football for the blind, are we not aloud to do things without special permission from on lookers.

Gwyn Zayac, Haverfordwest, Wales.

To Gwyn Zayac - What part of this article made you feel it was being treated like a 'circus act'? I found it very informative and objective. The only reference to 'heroes' was the striker talking about his footballing heroes. My colleagues and I recently discussed blind football as I personally did not know much about it. I looked into it briefly and then stumbled upon this BBC article which provided a fascinating look at the sport. It appears to me that you are taking offence where there is none to be taken. There is nothing wrong in bringing to light more information on this sport and I think the article did a sound, unpatronising job of that.

Matthew Simpson, Reading, Berks

How about these guys who can play football coach the england team they would be able to teach them a trick or two?

H Blue, UK

Gwyn, it's a shame you see the article as offensive as I don't think that is the intention, it is a human interest piece. I had no idea that we had a blind football team and it is fascinating to read about it, as for everyone thinking it is weird I think you are way off the mark. An article like this can only make more people aware and hopefully looking to support it which will take the sport from strength to strength. I couldn't find the bit that refers to them as 'heroes' but in comparison to the national team the fact that they are doing something that no doubt people have told them they couldn't do and not only that are brilliant at it shows a strength of character that our national teams could learn from.

Alison, Scotland

It's absolutely amazing what the body and mind can achieve when you want and need it to. Great story!

Tori Holloway, Medway, kent

'm not visually impaired, apart from my need to wear spectacles and not particularly thick ones at that. After watching this video I have to say (hence the post) that I'm very impressed with the amount of ball control and talent these guys have. They may have to move a little slower around the pitch but all the skill of the game is there. It's fantastic and mesmerizing to watch, I just keep asking myself, how do they do that? There's no doubt that David Beckham is a great player, role model and ambassador for the beautiful game which is football but these guys and are a great inspiration to us all in football as well as in life. Keep it up lads, with you wearing our colours, I can once again be proud of what they represent in this game we all love and share!

Peter Duffin, Monterey CA

Is this event going to be televised, as my daughter and I would really like to see it? Good luck boys.

Deborah, London

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