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Page 40 (10 pages)
Before the match, all the players have their eyes taped shut. They quietly cluster together at the edge of the field, shoulder to shoulder, their heads bowed, as if they are checking whether they can see the artificial turf beneath their feet. The coach approaches and they turn their faces and closed eyes toward him in a gesture born of habit and trust. The coach affixes large adhesive bandages over their eyes and then carefully makes sure all the edges are sealed down.
“It must really hurt when it’s torn off their eyelids, eyebrows and eyelashes,” I think, involuntarily frowning. And then I ask, “Why cover up their eyes? They’re blind as it is.”
“Not all of them,” the coach says. “Some of them can distinguish light and dark. And it’s important that everyone be on an even footing out there on the field.”
On a miniature field, surrounded by low, padded walls, eight blind soccer players kick a ball about. They play awkwardly, as if they are new to the game. The small, heavy ball rarely takes flight and sluggishly rolls around underfoot. There are no swift zigs or zags, no long passes. Indeed, passing is a tricky business in blind soccer. If the ball gets away, it is not that easy to locate it. As long as it is rolling, a little bell inside jingles so the players can locate it. But if the ball stops, the jingling stops, and the blind players are left totally in the dark.
The players’ apparent awkwardness actually reflects their long experience in the sport: the odd-looking economy of their movements is from tension; they are concentrating deeply. With sound alone as their guide, they must “see” the trajectory of the ball and grasp where both their teammates and opponents are on the field. They are supposed to keep track of the field’s boundaries and the position of the goal, of course not mixing up theirs and the other team’s – all while trying to avoid serious injury to themselves or others.
I say “supposed to” because they are not always successful. They are constantly taking hits: slamming at full speed into one another or into the walls, or, most dangerously, into the goalposts. Blind soccer players experience a lot of injuries: battered noses, lips, hands and knees are common. True enough, I never saw anyone writhing in pain on the grass after being injured, medics rushing toward them with a stretcher. But I did see blind players who did not even notice their cut brows or knees charging back into the fray, dripping blood on the field.
If you feel that blind soccer is an inelegant pursuit, I encourage you to conduct an experiment. Close your eyes and go, for example, to your home’s foyer. Without benefit of sight, locate your coat and shoes (making sure you have the right ones) and put them on by touch alone. Be sure to time yourself, and also to keep track of how many times you stumble or bump into the wall, corners, doorjambs or furniture. I dare say you’ll be surprised by the results. A relatively short and familiar path (a few meters at most) turns out to be extremely thorny. I don’t mean it as an insult when I point out that you probably would find it difficult to get a spoonful of soup to your mouth with your eyes closed, even if you’ve performed this simple act a million times in your life.
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