When Katja Loffler explains that the most important thing out on the pitch is to concentrate on the essential, she is not talking about sporting pressure or the tactical ins-and-outs. The essential for defensive midfielder Loffler is sound and intuition, since she was born blind.
No-one can take away her passion for football - after all, Katja is fighting it out for the German championship and the 30-year-old has just played for St. Pauli in the first ever round of the blind football Bundesliga in Germany. "We call it blind passion," she smiled as she spoke to FIFA.com during a training session in a small gym in Hamburg.
The last Sunday in March went down as a historic day in the history of sports for the disabled in Germany. The eight teams in the newly founded top league all got the season underway with matches played in Stuttgart and Berlin. Hasan Altoubas' four goals not only propelled Dortmund to two victories but made them the first ever leaders of the Bundesliga. But the results were only part of the story on this special afternoon.
'An important part of a team'
The real story was the unique delight that was shared by all of the teams, from title favourites Stuttgart to Rhine-Ruhr, Marburg, Mainz, Berlin-Wurzburg and Chemnitz down to St. Pauli and the surprise leaders from Dortmund. "You can feel that instead of just being someone in need of assistance, you've suddenly become an important part of a team," explains Katja. "The team needs you, otherwise it can't work."
It sounds fascinating and futuristic, the way four outfield players chase after a ball containing bells for 25-minute halves on a pitch 40 metres x 20. They wear protective headbands and blindfolds to make sure that those who are less partially sighted than others do not have an advantage. And watching a blind football match for a few minutes is enough to make you realise that team-work is of the essence.
To protect players from injuries, members of both teams shout out the Spanish word "Voy!" - "I'm coming" as they go into a tackle. Otherwise the only instructions come from the goalkeepers, the only sighted players in the team, and the guides who are stationed behind the goals and on the half-way line.
"I try to block out everything except the rattle of the bells and the calls," says Katja, giving us an insight into her world out on the pitch. "Everyone complements everyone else. And then you've got the boards that project the sound back in. We're just proud to have discovered blind football in Germany and we're delighted that we can now play our sport as it should be played, in a Bundesliga," adds the woman who, along with her husband and fellow player Michael, helped to create the St. Pauli team.
Help from Uwe Seeler
This milestone has received support from the German FA's Sepp Herberger Foundation, the German Disabled Sports Association and the German Blind and Partially Sighted Association. A former great of world football also offered his patronage to this remarkable and ambitious project: German legend Uwe Seeler, who is a member of the board of trustees of the Sepp Herberger Foundation and who first got the ball rolling for blind football during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
"Uwe Seeler first found out about blind football at the 2006 World Cup in Berlin and then told us all about it. Pretty soon it became clear he would get involved here," said Manuel Neukirchner, CEO of the Sepp Herberger Foundation, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The foundation set itself the target of putting the integrating power of football to work for society, and they found a perfect way of implementing this mission in the shape of blind football. "I have the utmost respect for the players," says Neukirchner. "They are people who are fully integrated into society who are getting the recognition they deserve thanks to reports about this new league. This is incredibly important in giving the movement some impetus."
Alongside the social aspects, the launching of the new league is also a real step towards competing at the top level. At the end of the day, there are sporting goals that need to be pursued and achieved. Blind football is currently being played in 21 countries, and as Neukirchner says: "One of our ambitions is to establish this fascinating element over here and to make Germany one of the most successful and prestigious nations in world football."
Next stop the Paralympics
The road is a long one but no-one has the slightest doubt that the inauguration of the blind football Bundesliga will turn out to be a decisive development in the history of the sport in Germany. "When I see that an international between Spain and France attracted 3,000 fans, that's obviously something that we'd also like to achieve," says Neukirchner.
The regular Bundesliga clashes will obviously be a boon to the already existing German national team. They finished bottom of their group in the recent European qualifiers for the Paralympics, but Neukirchner say that they "very much hope to qualify" for the following games.
This is also the aim of the Lofflers. "My husband and I never shirk a challenge when we're training against each other," says Katja. "It can make things a little heated when we get back home afterwards!" With Michael a German international, at least this is one household where getting time off for tournaments should not be a problem.