With the world of football absorbed by the big international tournaments being fought out across each continent, five of the best blind futsal national squads came together in Buenos Aires in April to dispute the second edition of the IBSA (International Blind Sports Association) Cup. FIFA.com witnessed a thrilling week of competition at an event that players and coaches agree transcends the boundaries of mere sport.
The National Centre for Sporting Excellence (CENARD) played host to five of the six teams looking to take gold in the Paralympic Games Athens 2004: Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Greece and England. The tournament, organised by the Argentinian Federation of Sports for the Blind (FADEC) and financed by IBSA, consisted of an initial round robin round in which each team faced all the others. The top two teams contested the final while the next best two played off for thitd-place.
The title went to the Brazilians, who overcame Argentina's Bats, the current world champions in the speciality, in the penalty shootout (3-2). Spain, meanwhile, beat the Greeks 3-1 for third spot.
Aiming for Athens
18 April 2004. Unusually high temperatures for the time of year gave a warm welcome to the hundreds of fans who had turned out to watch the final day's play. Spain and Greece went head to head in the first match of the afternoon with the Iberians running out winners, and scooping the Fair Play award to boot.
"We've come on in leaps and bounds. Along with Argentina and Brazil, we're a cut above the rest," said Argentine Carlos Campos, Spain's coach since 1988.
The final was fought out in front of a packed house between the game’s two top dogs. After a goalless draw in normal time, the Auriverdes showed nerves of steel to take the title on penalties. "We're ecstatic. There's a lot of rivalry with Argentina, so beating them on their own turf means double the satisfaction!" Brazilian forward Fabio Vasconcelos told FIFA.com. Argentina's Silvio Velo, the tournament's leading scorer and widely considered to be the best blind player in the world, could hardly hide his disappointment at the defeat, but rushed to console team-mates who had not been able to hold back the tears.
"We're OK, but we want to be better so we can bring back gold from Athens. We're being positive, in spite of the loss. We're on the right track," Velo said after the final.
Sport for all
Futsal for the blind is played according to similar rules as the regular five-a-side game, except for certain modifications which take into account players' visual limitations. Teams are formed by four outfield players, who are totally or partially blind, plus a sighted or partially-sighted goalkeeper. Given the goalkeepers' advantage, they cannot step outside the goal area measuring two metres by five.
The main difference in the discipline is to be found in the ball, which has a kind of bell inside allowing players to guide themselves by the sound. Behind each goal, there is also a guide from the attacking team whose indications help forwards to situate themselves on the field.
"It's a sport which relies heavily on individual ability, where players usually carry the ball under control with both feet, which is difficult even for a sighted player," says Spain's coach and the chairman of the ISBA's football committee, Carlos Campos. "Working with them is a tough task, but it's one of the most satisfying I've ever come up across, no doubt about it."
England coach Tony Larkin could not agree more: "I've been working with the blind national squad since 1995, and the skill they show on the pitch would surprise anyone. With each passing year, you can see fresh advances as far as tactics are concerned and that's got to be good for the game."
“An indescribable feeling”
A few years ago, a charity match aimed at raising awareness brought together blindfolded members of the full Argentinian squad such as Claudio López and Matías Almeyda, among others, to take on the Bats. The drubbing dished out by the non-sighted team made many reconsider what living with blindness 24 hours a day would be like, and how much playing sports such as football could help the blind from a psychological point of view.
"People complain about problems which, when you see these guys, pale in comparison. They inspire you to excel yourself every day, it can bring a lump to your throat to see how they give their all on the pitch," says Argentina coach Enrique Nardone.
"Playing this sport in these conditions gives me a feeling which is hard to put into words. By running, moving around without any help from anyone we're sending a message out to society: we can do things for ourselves," says Spain's Alfredo Cuadrado.
English team member Andrew Briant agrees: "I'm a player just like anyone else. I work and train with the same dedication as a sighted footballer. This type of event is fantastic because you get the chance to show that, in spite of the limitations you might come across in life, you have the ability to play just like anyone else."
Argentina's Lucas Rodríguez, one of the stars of the tournament and a huge admirer of Pablo Aimar, has this to say: "When I'm playing I get an indescribable feeling. If I were sighted, I'd be playing for my favourite team, Belgrano, now. Representing my country is a unique experience."
Spain's Pedro García, a Real Madrid fan and Zinedine Zidane devotee ("I'm told he does some amazing things with the ball"), thinks much the same: "I love playing and when I do I disconnect from everything, I'm free. It's a beautiful feeling. Words fail me to describe it."
Alberto Bravo, general-secretary of the IBSA, watched the tournament alongside Alberto Nattkemper, the chairman of the Argentinian Federation of Sports for the Blind. They summed up the week like this: "This type of event shows the sighted world what the blind are capable of, not just in the sporting sense, but also how they overcome the tremendous difficulties they face in life."