To stand at the sideline of a football field and witness blind footballers play is a lot like standing next to an extraordinary flame that warms us and lends us it’s unwavering fires. For, such is the spirit of these footballers who have to push the limits of human endurance every day. Two such individuals are Chennai’s R.C Vijayalakshmi and Keren Kirubai.
In a first, India is hosting the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) Blind Football Asia/Oceania Championship in Kochi from November 11 to 18. The men’s tournament features Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Iran, China, India, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Australia.
The women’s edition of the tournament comprises only India and Japan. The Indian women got the opportunity to play an international team for the first time, when they took on Japan on November 11. Interestingly, the team also features two 21-year-old players from Chennai— RC Vijayalakshmi and Keren Kirubai.
Striker and midfielder RC Vijayalakshmi was initiated to football by a friend. The partially sighted footballer said that a month long training camp in Pune was held to prepare them for the tournament. “After the camp in Pune I have learnt a lot more skills, techniques and ball possession tactics”, remarks the midfielder. When she first started playing the sport in 2020, it gave her an agency and a new vocabulary to navigate through life.
What is curious about blind football is that the goalkeeper can be a fully sighted person. Goalkeeper Keren Kirubai says, “A goalkeeper has to continuously communicate with the team. She is the eye of the team.” The former state level shotput and discus thrower gets her arm strength from her short innings with the off field events. “As an athlete I used to play for myself. After coming to blind football, I have learnt to support each other, bringing others up. I have learnt patience which has shaped my character,” adds the goalkeeper.
After a nail biting finish, the Japanese women defeated India by one goal to win the IBSA title. Albeit disheartening, what is commendable is that the Indian women have qualified for the World championship in Birmingham next year.
Formed in 2019, Tamil Nadu’s Blind Football Association (TNBFA) fosters talent and creates a reservoir of players like Keren and Vijayalakshmi. The association not only harnesses talent but also works on equipping blind athletes to face the world.
Sebastian F, head coach and Director of the association says, “After coming to the academy the girls discovered the joys of something as basic as running.” He adds, “In spite of being a body contact sport, blind athletes are encouraged to play while seated on a chair... Here, we encourage our athletes to immerse themselves in the game the way it should be played.”
Bharathi Raja, President of TNBFA remarks that the men and women have different kinds of limitations. Men are expected to study and get jobs while women are not encouraged to play fast-paced sports where injuries cannot be avoided. Parents are usually skeptical of such endeavors.
What looms heavily on the men and women is the lack of training infrastructure. While the paralympic association requires certain criteria to be taken under its folds, blind football does not qualify as one. Bodily limitations, economic difficulties and societal constructs fall over their shoulders like an untold sentence. The players however, live in hope.