Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Blind Footballers of the National Park

When Luis was a child his family lived near the military academy in north Bogotá and Luis would go watch the soldiers practice war - with live ammunition. One day, a grenade exploded in front of him, burning parts of his body and blinding him.

Luis pauses for a drink. During games,
all players must wear blindfolds so that  sighted people can't sneak in.
That was when Luis, now 53, started playing soccer.

"I had to run lots harder than the other kids did," he recalls.

He hasn't stopped playing since.

Luis is a leader of the league of blind footballers who practice Wednsday and Friday afternoons in Bogotá's National Park.

They appear awkward, have trouble trapping the ball and their shots can be off the mark. But once one of them has the ball, he can dribble more confidently than most of us with two good eyes. And they play with as much drive and intensity as competitors in the FIFA World Cup. That shouldn't be surprising, since they finished sixth in the last blind football World Cup, whereas Colombia's sighted national team didn't classify for its world cup at all. (Unsurprisingly, Brazil won the cup.)

Getting ready to shoot. 
As they play, the players maintain a constant talk so that they know each other's locations. The ball is specially constructed with ball bearings inside so that players can hear it when it rolls. The goalies are sighted and direct the rest of the team. (The referees can also see, and so some people say this is the opposite of conventional football, in which the players are sighted and the referees blind.) Paradoxically, many of the blind players wear blindfolds - that's because during official games all players are required to wear blindfolds to prevent partially sighted people from having an unfair advantage. So, even many of the completely blind players blindfold themselves to get used to wearing the things.

A players' conference. Alejandro, in the striped shirt, is the sighted goalie. 

Luís founded the blind football league 25 years ago, and today it's become a family affair. One of his sons is the team's coach and the other plays goalie. Luis is also a successful attorney who specializes in representing disabled people. He doesn't waste any more time feeling sorry for himself as a lawyer than he does as an athlete.
An after-game drink by the court. 

"In law, the sighted and the blind can compete equally," he says, even tho he has to have a relative read documents to him.

The club hasn't stopped at playing soccer. They're also pioneering blind basketball.

One of the footballers' biggest fans is Efraim, who sells snacks from a kiosk beside the pitch.

"So many healthy people feel sorry for themselves," he observes. The footballers "are real examples of people overcoming obstacles. It's admirable."

Just don't keep your eye on the ball.

See Bogotá's Bike Tours' International blind football squad HERE.

Alejandro, who plays goalie, and his father Luis.
After the blind football comes another surprising sport - hockey, on four-wheeled roller skates. 
Hockey players practicing. There's another league which plays on in-line skates. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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