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April 2013

Paralympics goalball
29th April 2013

It started with a scene from Cats, took in some Chess along the way and, with Sweden beating Great Britain with a golden goal in the first minute of extra time, it ended with a fanfare from Mamma Mia.

We Will Rock You got a look in as well, with London Calling belting out every time there was a break in play to yield a musical smorgasbord every bit as rich and diverse as the sporting one.

The athletes on either side were ,at times, ten-pin bowlers, discus throwers and  overworked goalkeepers. They needed the agility of a judo-player , the reflexes of a fencer and the intense concentration of a top-class golfer.

Goalball is a sport that defies description. It has no equivalent in non-disabled sport and is one of three events – boccia and wheelchair rugby are the others - that belong solely in the Paralympics

Played in silence, except for the bursts of rock music deemed , for some unfathomable reason, to be essential accompaniments to all major sporting occasions, and consisting of up to 200 almost  identical events, it nevertheless makes compelling sporting drama.

Yesterday’s womens’ quarter-final was made even more fascinating by the context. Great Britain was competing at Paralympic level for the first time ever and both mens and women’s teams had endured an ordeal by fire before finding their feet. Too late for the men, whose 11-1 mauling by Lithuania was followed by a 7-1 defeat at the hands of Turkey to render quarter-final qualification impossible , but not for the women who shrugged off a seven-nil savaging by gold medal-favourites China to reach the last eight on the back of victories over Brazil and European champions Denmark.

Fairy tale ending was there none. Great Britain took the lead through Anna Starkey in the third minute of the second –half, surrendered it less than sixty seconds later and when faced with an extra time of another three minutes each way fell apart the first time Sweden took aim.

18 year old Georgina Bullen shouldered the blame for both goals even though no-one was pointing a finger. As the centre she was first line of defence for well over a hundred shots by the Swedes. On all fours, with her right knee on the  tape that marked the centre of the court, left leg outstretched, head up , ears cocked for the slightest sound from a bell-filled ball hurtling in her direction at anything up to 60 miles per hour, she looked for all the world to be auditioning for the part  of  Bombalurina in Cats. While Bullen and team-mates Jessica Luke and Anna Starkey preened and pranced and made pretty feline shapes at one end of the court – 18 metres long and  9 metres wide- the bigger, older, more powerful  Swedes played the roles of Grizzabella, Bustopher Jones  and co at the other. When Starkey was penalized for a ‘high ball” – an error of judgment that caused her to release the ball a fraction late – she seemed to have no chance as one-on-one defender against the imposing  Malin Gustavsson. When she not only pulled off  a brilliant save but followed it up with a goal of her own in open play, an excitable crowd did its best to lift the roof of the Copper Box, the stunningly beautiful, environmentally-friendly state-of-the-art  venue that is now the  third largest  indoor arena in London.

No sooner had a British Library-like silence been restored by no-nonsense Brazilian referee Carla di Matta – a woman who had no hesitation in demanding a shot  be re-taken every time  the crowd refused to keep its side of the bargain – than Gustavsson struck back with a goal of her own.

With Starkey, mixing round-arm discus throws with underarm ten-pin deliveries and Jessica Luke aiming  continually to angle her shots in from wide on the right , the last third of the match developed into a battle of wits against the more direct Swedes. All three Britons had more than one occasion to be grateful for the body armour they wore beneath their team kit as the Swedes pounded away in search of the winner.

Full time gave Britain’s German coach Knut Kursawe the chance to regroup. ‘ I let the whole pressure of Golden Goal overwhelm me.  “said  Bullen. I’ve not experienced it before. Knut told us to keep calm, to defend, defend and I slipped up”

Kursawe was philosophical  “ Of course if you lose to a Golden Goal you think the system’s unfair” he admitted. “But if you think how hard these girls have worked “ – they only knew they would be competing in London six months ago - “I have every confidence they will go to Rio in four years time, and do well”