Indian Blind Football is Coming into its Own

Indian Blind Football is Coming into its Own

September 30, 2022 | Author: Pratika Yashaswi, Independent Journalist

On a visit to an orphanage in Shillong, Meghalaya, Sunil Mathew watched closely as a boy atop a tall
jackfruit tree shook a large, heavy fruit.

As the boy, Klingson Mara clambered down quickly and gracefully, Mathew was astounded to realize that
he was completely blind.

“He had no idea how strong he was,” Mathew says, his eyes shining. Mathew, a football coach, activist, and
businessman from Kerala, was then recruiting players for the blind football team of India. He took Mara
under his wing, trained him for a couple of years, and today Mara is known as the Iron Man of the Indian
blind football team.

India, home to the world’s largest population of blind people, also boasts the highest number of blind
footballers, with over 600 players, including over 50 women. Mathew was introduced to me as the
Godfather of Indian blind football, an epithet he thoroughly deserves. In Kochi, he houses around 10
players in the only parasports academy of its kind in India. Players train in the morning, shower, change,
and some go on to regular day jobs to earn their bread.

The Indian team call themselves the Blue Dolphins, after the blind Gangetic dolphin, an endangered
species in India. Much like their namesake mammals, players orient themselves on the pitch through
echolocation and the help of sighted coaches and guides placed strategically at the perimeters of the field.
There are five players on each side, and the football they use makes a noise. As the players go in for the
ball, they shout, “Voy!” All this happens in a silent stadium where the audience is only allowed to cheer
when a goal is scored, creating beautifully perfect conditions for blind or partially sighted players to play.

Until Sunil Mathew formed the Blind Football team in 2013, he had already been running an NGO through
which the blind are empowered to skill up and work IT and call-center jobs, among other things. He’s
been doing this for twenty years. “In 2013, one day, I just had a football with me, and one of the boys
asked me to pass the ball. So I took the ball to him, and he puts the ball down, runs, and then takes a shot,”
Mathew narrates. “And I was like, wow, how did you kick that ball? And he said, ‘I used to play before I
went blind.’ And that hit me like, oh, my God. If you used to play and then went blind, that’s so bad.”

Mathew, a football lover and coach, then went online to research blind football to learn about the game.
The next problem he had to solve was getting a ball itself. A football used in the blind sport contains little
bells that make a noise when it moves. Back in 2013, India didn’t make these balls, so Mathew had to get it
from a friend traveling from the UK for about GBP 40. To recruit players, Mathew spread the word
through a network of NGOs for the blind and announcements on radio channels. Tryouts were then
organized in different states in India, and players were shortlisted.

Ten years on, the Indian Blind Football team has played over ten international tournaments and stands
6th in Asia and 25th worldwide. They benefit under the tutelage of Mathew, as well as Keryn Seal, an ex-
Paralympian and ex-captain of the blind football team in England. Seal has played over 120 matches for
England. Visual impairment has not stood in the way of his being able to provide remote technical
coaching. “I believe the blind can do anything,” Mathew says. Although Seal is completely blind, he offers
valuable insight and perspective to the Indian game. His ability to fully understand what it’s like to play
without sight, coupled with his tremendous knowledge and experience, has been a significant boon to the
team.

Mathew’s players are now gearing up for the 2022 IBSA Blind Football Asian Championships to be held in
Kochi later this year. About eight men’s teams and two women’s teams will be competing. The best four
teams will go on to play in the World Cup, and the winner will play in the Paris Paralympics.

Now, Mathew has another project going on — he’s building a women’s team. Only two countries in Asia
play women’s blind football and no more than ten in the world. “We put our hat in the ring because we
believe that the women’s sport will be bigger than the men’s sport,” says Mathew. He has shortlisted
around 12 female players, ranging between 13 and 24 years of age. It’s only a matter of time before the
world starts talking about them too.

 


Pratika Yashaswi is an independent journalist mainly covering design, lifestyle and culture. Her words have appeared in Vice, Huffington Post, Dezeen, and Seema. She’s passionate about canines and mental health and writes with a perpetually peckish golden retriever at her feet.