Some Bells and Voys! and a GOAL! Sunil J Mathew’s Inspiring Story of Pioneering India’s First Blind Football Team
The potential of sports in India is still undiscovered. It is only recently that we have started recognizing the talent and skill of our sportsmanship, and we still have a long way to go.
The city of Kochi in Kerala, where I have been based, is a place where sports are an indivisible part of the culture. Over the years, Kerala has produced countless Olympic players. I have been a football fan for as long as I can remember. Every kick and goal made in football has my interest, and I know it like the back of my hand.
I completed my schooling in Kerala and went on to pursue my college degree in Delhi. Football remained a part of my weekends as I grew up. It was after I graduated that my journey took off.
Empowering where it’s needed most.
After I graduated, I started an IT business in 2000, along with a small company, where I have been working with seven other people, including a visually challenged person. I had always sympathized with the blind, but more than our sympathy, they needed support. There are little to no ways for a disabled person to survive economically or socially due to a lack of sensitivity and provisions. I wanted to contribute what I could to the community.
I joined the Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged as an NGO in 2002, two years after its inception. With the largest blind population in the world at 15 million, we needed concrete plans to make a real difference. We started teaching skills to the blind, providing them with a way towards independence. Today, we have people working in IT companies, many with government jobs, doing well for themselves and their families. We also have an all-blind orchestra.
In early 2013, I came across a video of David Beckham playing football blindfolded with the England National Blind Football Team. Those days, India wasn’t playing blind football officially and had no coaching centres that trained blind athletes. I didn’t have to ponder it twice to know I was going ahead with it.
Indian Blind Football Federation
Blind football officially started in 2013, after we approached the Indian Blind Sports Association, New Delhi, to start a national team. The Indian Blind Sports Association was the only body in India that conducted blind sports, but attention was hardly paid to the game.
Great talent came from Kerala and different parts of the country, like West Bengal, Uttarakhand, and the Northeast and we put together a team. But the biggest concern was that none of us knew how to play. Our best shot was going overseas to observe what the game looked like. In 2013, we took our team to a game in Thailand, where we learned all about the game.
Played on a 40 x 20-meter field, the game is played in two halves of 15 minutes. The ball has bells inside to help with navigation. Four blind outfield players and one sighted goalkeeper are guided by a guide outside the field, who guides the attacker to aim for the goal. There are side boards on both sides of the ground that provide anchors. A player planning to tackle the ball shouts ‘Voy!’ to alert all the players and avoid accidents. The spectacular game is played purely with the auditory senses, with silent but eager spectators.
Coaching the team was a major challenge since coaching a blind football team is nothing like coaching a regular football team, where you know what to expect from a certain team. You had to spend time with each and every player to coach them in ways that were most beneficial to them. Later in our journey, the former captain of the England Blind Football team, Keryn Seal, volunteered to help us out remotely and is now our Indian assistant technical coach.
It was our first big victory that made us believe that the country had the potential to make it big in the blind football space. In August 2013, our first team reached the semifinals of the first ever international tournament we participated in. It was a moment of pride and hope for me to make the team stronger and popularize football throughout the country.
In 2016, blind football finally found its footing when I, with my colleague M. C. Roy and like-minded individuals, launched the Indian Blind Football Federation. It’s the only national body working in integration with the Indian Blind Sports Association, the AIFF, and the Paralympic Committee of Sports.
Today, we have a proper structure in place for men where we conduct regional, national, and international tournaments. IBFF organized India's first women's blind football match in 2019 and now also has a partially sighted football team.
What the future holds
Initially, India had six teams, and now we have 24, so the future looks promising. In November 2022, India hosted the Asian championship in blind football for men and women. The Women’s Blind Football team qualified for the World Cup to be held at Birmingham in August 2023. Our dream is to reach the top eight in the world for the Paralympics.
India has talent everywhere, but we suffer simply due to a lack of resources, structure, and policies. Better schooling for the blind, including sports in the curriculum, is a way to build the future of sports, starting young. Sports are very important since a healthy population adds to the GDP of the country. Inclusivity, investment opportunities, and better policies need to be a priority because the sport can only flourish with the involvement of the government, the people, and the corporations.
One of my players, Vishnu Vaghela, came back from Mexico, said in an interview, ‘Sir, what is the point of me cribbing and crying over something I don’t have. I can at least make use of the little bit that I have and do something for myself, my family, and society.’ He has come from a tough background and is now being honoured by the state government. If everyone were to think like him, the nation would be different.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath