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April 2013

Paralympic football -1
29th April 2013

“Are you blind referee?” There’s not a football crowd in the country that hasn’t at some time or other bawled out the question, more often than not with  what it considers to be hilarious references to white sticks and guide dogs . There’s hardly a player who hasn’t, either out of baffled bewilderment or paranoid resentment, muttered something similar. When it comes to 5-a-side football at the Paralympics, the boot is, so to speak, on the other foot. The referee is one of only three men on the pitch who can see. The other two are goalkeepers.

Vision – the one quality that all football greats are said to possess in abundance – is not  an issue in this form of the game. It’s  irrelevant. Hearing is the key skill and blind footballers – like television presenters and airline pilots  have to process a multitude of voices. 

GB captain Dave Clarke, scorer of the goal that guaranteed a point for Britain, has a simple solution ”I listen to the loudest voice, and block out the rest. It’s just something you pick up as a blind footballer” 

As well as to the goalkeeper, an outfield player has to respond to instructions from one coach tucked behind the  perimeter boards in the middle third of the pitch and another behind the opposition goal. He has to rely on his opponents shouting voy as a warning that they are about to make a tackle.

The word comes from Spain as does the game itself. The home of the current world and European champions is also the birthplace – some 30 years ago.    Small wonder then that for most of the match Spain looked the more skilful , the more balanced and the more creative of the two teams at the Riverbank Stadium.Small wonder ,too, that Brazil, the most successful soccer nation on the planet, are the reigning Paralympic  5 a side football champions, having won the title when the sport was introduced to the Athens Games and retained the title four years ago in Beijing.

And it’s no surprise either, that Argentina, one of the traditional powerhouses in world football,  top GB’s group after their 2-0 win over Paralympic first-timers Iran earlier in the day ,or that Johan Cruyff, one of the chief architects of the total football espoused by the Netherlands in the seventies and eighties is a fan of Paralympic 5 a side football. An interested spectator in London, his admiration for the blind footballers is whole-hearted. “To see what they do with their difficulties is fantastic.” He declared at a press conference yesterday.’they are not afraid to perform”

Team GB were not afraid to get stuck in. Clarke suffered a black eye after a clash of heads in the first half and had to leave for running repairs three times in the second. But, driven onwards both  by a vociferous crowd and the forthright urgings of captain Clarke, hung on for a draw  that has left them in with a chance of reaching the medal stages. GB  now face Argentina, on Sunday with , Clarke believes, every chance of victory. “ We were a bit tentative early on , made too many sill mistakes and committed too many fouls. But I felt we displayed a fair degree of skill ourselves, and deserved the result.

In truth players on both sides  displayed dribbling skills that would be the envy of many a  Premiership player, is their ball control. But, with no reliable fix on the whereabouts of even their nearest team-mates, most outfielders tend to plow a lonely furrow in the general direction of the opposition goal, arms away from their body to ward off  challengers, head cocked to one side to better hear where the  bell-filled ball actually is, which ends only when they run full tilt into a defender or fire off a hopeful shot.

There were few shots of any sort for the first 20 minute’s of team GB’S  group encounter with Spain , and it was all too tempting to  reach for the stereotypes. Spain  were more skilful and in Antonio “Nino” Martin  Gaitan  and Marcelo Rosado Corasco they had two of the three most skilful forwards on the pitch. Team GB were Premiership-direct, their considerably bigger players content to barrel tirelessly up  and down the field with little apparent respect for the smaller Spaniards in their way. Pretty it wasn’t, and nor as it particularly surprising when , after a crude challenge from Daniel English, Spain won a penalty and coverted it through Martin Gaitan. GB should have been 2 –down a couple of minutes later when a fourth team foul triggered the award of a free kick just outside the area. A brilliant save from Lewis Skyers inspired heroics at the other end, Clarke scoring from close range after a sublime piece of skill. Team GB  fight on.