Blinding!

London 2012 Paralympics 5-a-side Football, Preliminaries Pool B
Brazil v France (9am)
China v Turkey (11am)
Friday, 31st August 2012
Riverbank Arena, Olympic Park
Distance 24 miles, Attendance 350-ish (at a guess)
Wow! Usually the most memorable matches have a hatful of goals, great tension and/or extraordinary atmosphere but, today was incredible for totally different reasons.

Let’s start with the rules (as I understood them). Two teams, five-a-side, and another five subs including spare keeper. One sighted goal keeper, four totally blind outfielders. Parity of vision is ensured with double blindfolds which get rechecked by officials regularly to ensure total equality (or not) in vision. The ball has a bell in it so players can hear where it is. The sighted keeper can verbally guide his team mates, as can the “Guide” who stands behind the goal they are attacking. There are no throw-ins as boards run the length of the pitch, but corners and goal-kicks occur. Oh, and the most goals wins. To avoid the employment of David James goalkeepers cannot have been registered with FIFA for at least five years.
Rules (pt2): The game last fifty minutes, in two 25 minute halves, separated by a ten minutes interval.
Rules (pt3): “Let them hear, hold your cheer” was the motto. The crowd MUST remain silent whilst the ball is in play (this didn’t seem to include cheering or polite applause after shots or goals, but did include helicopters flying overhead).
Rules (pt4): Fouls are pretty hard to detect as “intent” can be somewhat subjective but, five fouls and your subbed off, three team fouls (haven’t worked out what they are yet) and every consecutive foul results in a penalty (somewhat like basketball free-throws I imagine though we didn’t see any).
The first game saw reigning World Champions Brazil take on France. My son was adamant Brazil would win as they had Pele and I didn’t have the heart to point out the error of his ways, but instead went along with it. France as it would turnout would frustrate all of us, leading to the usual first-game-of-major-tournament-stalemate. Their captain Villeroux had the first shot, just wide, on 25 seconds but his performance was equalled by Brazil’s captain Ricardinho and Jefinho (who hadn’t showed for the anthems). All three showed fantastic ball control throughout the match.
It was through this first period that one began to understand the two necessary qualities of any 5-a-side Paralympian: ball control and communication. Of course these would be useful in any footballer but for blind players, at both you need to be much better than the average Joe (Jordan/McBride/Pesci).
If you don’t communicate well you stay totally outside the game. “They must have really big ears” added my son, which roughly translates better hearing than us. Interestingly players shout “Voy!” a lot to signify they are running and where they are “going”. Perceptively he added that the constant shouting of Voy sounded just like the seagulls in Finding Nemo. As the ball makes more noise when jolted (bounced or kicked) and less when rolling smoothly, if you allow the ball to leave your very close control you’ll be lucky to find it again.
Given the side boards there is a great deal of wing play as this is the one part of the pitch where players can get help controlling the ball. From here many darting runs cut infield. Both captains in this first game were exceptional at this, though neither could make a break though in front of goal. Even in the second half when Villeroux pulled off the move of the game, cutting inside and beating three before shooting just wide, nothing seemed to change. He would also draw a great save from Brazilian keeper Fabio as the game opened up in the second half.

With Ricardinho trying to get a shot on goal late in the half France introduced another new thing (to us at least), timeouts. Teams have the options of these but, in the last two minutes of either half any stoppages result in the clock stopping. This negates the need for any injury time. Once time-outs were over the referees always rechecked eye-coverings in case temptation got the better of partially sighted players.
The learning curve wasn’t complete there. Before the game drew to its (drawn) conclusion we were treated to a French free-kick close to goal. The ball was rattled and placed by the ref so the attackers knew where it was, the keeper manually set up his wall, and then the Guide started tapping on the goal posts with a relay baton to guide the kicker to direct the ball the right way. The free-kick came to nothing and the game finished shortly after. The world champions had been outplayed but neither had scored, and Villeroux had clearly shown himself to be the Man of the Match.
We’d missed the warm-up of the first match but watching the Chinese and Turks go through the motions it was clear there were different approaches. The small Asian Champions had low centres of gravity and superb close ball control; they scuttled to and fro at such a pace – with the ball hardly leaving their toes – that Messi would’ve been green with envy. To a man they could stop and turn with such dexterity you have been forgiven for thinking they were sighted. The Turks on the other hand – as debutants at a major tournament – were more physical and clumsier (though probably all better than a sighted me).
Once they’d left the pitch for final preparations the comperes whipped us into a tuneless minor frenzy with Queen’s We Will Rock You, and We Are The Champions, and then it was game on. The Anton Du Beke look-a-like ref (son’s observation) had been replaced by Brian Glover (mine) and shortly the vastly superior Chinese were 1-0 up courtesy of Zheng W. The Turks had a couple of good chances early on from Uslu and Kurbetoglu but that was pretty much it. From then on China really took control with their small-step-scuttling game (been wondering if blind 5-a-side of the Cruyff Turn is possibly the Zheng Scuttle or some such…).
Every one of the Chinese starting line-up showed superb ball skills so – even though it’s very hard to score in this game – going two up before halftime was totally predictable. The second came from a penalty which Li X slotted in low to the right. Zheng also hit the post before the break, and the Turks – on three team fouls – had no answer other than to try to regroup with a timeout.

    

The second half was much of the same except it was here that I saw the great difference in the teams’ play; where the Turks charged, the Chinese skipped and scurried. More agile, more adept, and certainly more in tune with the demands of the sport. Within the first four minutes they’d already three great chances including one from a great two man corner routine which they’d obviously practiced.
The persistence of the Asian Champions would increase the score but, before, whilst the ref told the Turkish keeper off for complaining, my son complained more when China took Wang Z off (I didn’t tell him off). First, player of the day (not just the match) Wang Y turned and shot, hitting the far post which was no longer central after a defender ran into it. Moments later, Wang Y hit the target beautifully to really put the game beyond reach of the Turks who made a flurry of substitutions before Zheng popped up with a goal to grace any game. Crossing the pitch twice, passing four defenders en route, before smashing the ball in off the far post.

    

Leaving home with only the barest details of what we were about to see, we really had no idea what to expect but – as the Chinese celebrated – it was clear I was now in awe of a new type of football. It didn’t make the hair on your neck stand on end like walking up Olympic (Wembley) Way as a child, and it didn’t leave you punch drunk like a last minute Cup Winner but, walking out of the Riverbank Arena I found myself open mouthed in total awe of the incredible skill levels of these athletes. It was superb, and wonderful, and inspiring… It was blinding.
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