No footballer makes it to a major tournament without showing extraordinary levels of dedication and devotion. But few in the beautiful game will be able to match the courage and commitment of the 160 players currently limbering up for the 2012 Paralympics.
All have either overcome disabilities or battled back from appalling injuries and, whatever else, are sure to personify the Paralympic motto of ‘Spirit in motion’ between 31 August and 9 September.
Yet while sell-out crowds are anticipated, many of those heading along to London’s Riverbank Arena will be unsure of what to expect. FIFA.com therefore looks closer at the two forms of football on show, the rules involved and the nations vying for gold.
This version of the game is contested by the visually impaired, with all outfield players required to wear a blackout eye-mask to guarantee a level playing field. The goalkeeper may be fully sighted but is not allowed to leave his area, while ‘guides’ - also sighted – are permitted to direct players in each third of the pitch.
Key to the game is the ball itself, which contains ball bearings to make it audible to the players. The game is played on a small, hard surface surrounded by boards, which not only keep the ball in play but serve to reflect noise from footsteps and the ball itself. With sound and vocal communication so vital, spectators are asked to remain silent while the game is in motion.
Blind football provides a unique spectacle, and among its many devotees is David Beckham. The former England captain spent a day training with Great Britain’s 5-a-side Paralympic squad last November, and later described it as “one of the most fantastic and extraordinary experiences of my life”.
He said: “I’ve been playing football all my life, but I was really out of my comfort zone. I left there absolutely amazed at the incredible level of skill and concentration needed.”
The British players with whom Beckham trained are hopeful of a place on the podium, but there is no doubting Brazil’s status as the team to beat. This form of the game has only been played at two Paralympics, and the South Americans have won gold in each.
They also went on to reassert their dominance at the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) World Championship in 2010. Spain were the beaten finalists on that occasion, while hosts China PR were seen off in the 2008 final, although Jefinho – one of Brazil’s stars – had no doubt which of their seven rivals at London 2012 would offer the sternest test. “Always Argentina,” he said. “It has a great team, great players and there is always a rivalry. They always play to beat us."
This is the oldest of the two versions, having been part of the Paralympic programme since 1984, and features players afflicted by celebral palsy. The game adheres closely to FIFA rules, albeit with some key modifications. The pitch is smaller, and so too are the goals, which measure five-by-two metres. There is also no offside rule, while throw-ins may be made with one hand only and the duration of each half is just 30 minutes.
Eight nations – Argentina, Brazil, Great Britain, Iran, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine and USA – will battle it out for the medals, and it is the eastern Europeans who will begin the tournament as favourites. Ukraine took gold in Beijing four years ago, while Russia – having won silver on that occasion – went one better at last year’s Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) World Championships.
The most credible challenge to the dominance of these former Soviet nations seems likely to come from Iran, who took the final podium place in Beijing and reached the final of the World Championships, seeing off Ukraine en route. “We are proceeding well,” said head coach Amin Allahmani, reflecting on a morale-boosting victory at May’s CPISRA International Tournament in Ukraine, in which they beat both the hosts and Russia.
Backing from FIFA
FIFA has been a long-time supporter of several forms of disability football, providing help and backing for the IBSA World Championships in 2004, 2006 and 2010, while also contributing financially to the latter edition’s legacy programme.
The 7-a-side game, meanwhile, has benefited greatly from the world governing body’s Football for Hope movement, with ten individual programmes catered for people with intellectual disabilities.
Amputee football, though not involved in the Paralympics, has also received support through Football for Hope, and more can be read about FIFA’s work in these areas by visiting the links on the right.