In the heart of Kolkata, not very far away from the sprawling Maidan, six teams got together for a one-of-a-kind tournament — the first East Zone Blind Football tournament — on Saturday.
On the sixth floor of ‘Extraatime Turf’, Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ played loudly on stereo speakers while players dribbled and referees were immersed in pre-match pep talk.
In a quiet corner was a medical station, piled with bundles of cotton, gauze and eyes masks. The players were seated in a row, getting their eyes covered before walking onto the field to ensure that even the partially-sighted couldn’t see a thing.
Dressed in green jerseys, the five-member team of the Mizoram Blind Society team — all in their 20s — arrived for the tournament, organised by the Indian Blind Football Federation (IBFF) which brought together teams from Bengal, Odisha and Bihar as well. The two-day event aims to raise awareness and the scope of blind football, apart from training players and coaches.
The special footballs used had bells inside them to help the players navigate. After a few minutes of getting acquainted with the field with the help of their guides, the Mizoram team, facing Kolkata’s Football Association for the Blind of Bengal (FABB), was ready.
The first game, which lasted 40 minutes, was nothing short of exciting. Amid cheering and applause, the visiting team scored their first goal, and within three minutes, the score was equalled by Kolkata’s boys. The match ended in a draw, with players Klingson D’marak and Suprakash Das picked as favourites from the match.
While 23-year-old D’marak has even played for India, Das is just starting out. “It was not until I started college that I came to know about blind football. My brother and I always loved watching Messi play,” said Das, who also won the ‘Golden Boot Award’, scoring nine goals.
D’marak, who originally hails from Meghalaya and practices regularly at IBFF’s academy in Kochi, said, “I scored three goals today so it was very special.” He went on to win the award for ‘player of the tournament’.
The game is played with five members in each side with goalkeepers and a guide helping players direct the ball towards the goal.
It’s not easy, and mirrors blind football’s attempts to gain recognition in the country. From awareness to funds, there are many hurdles.
“At the moment, we have around 20 players in the academy, launched last year…We have a few sponsors like Tata Trust who have come forward to help us grow but there is so much more to be done,” says Md Rashad, project coordinator of IBFF. “Our goal is to help these talented people to make a living and live independently, and with NGO ‘SRVC’ in Kochi, we try to train them in a few ways to achieve it.”
The situation is dismal in Kolkata. “We play at the Rabindra Bharati ground, but that’s an open field and it lacks all the safety guards needed for visually impaired people,” says Ajit Kr Verma of FABB.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Shree Prakash Kothari, the owner of the turf, said, “If we can do something for these talented players, then why not. I’m sure something workable can be done.”
The two-day event revived hope among its participants. With the final being played between two state teams, it was a victory for the city.