Hong Kong Blind Football Team showcases futsal skills at ‘Experience in the Dark’ event
Visually impaired players rely on sounds and verbal communication in five-a-side game displaying how, despite challenges, they can still master Paralympic sport
On an indoor court at the Southorn Stadium in Wan Chai, two teams of footballers square off, some donning strange white goggles as they kick around a jingling ball. Coaches and goalkeepers on both sides shout instructions.
The peculiar eye gear is designed to reduce players’ vision by 20 per cent, narrowing their peripheral sight and simulating the experience of a glaucoma patient. On the other side of the court are their opponents, goggle-free but visually impaired, yet exhibiting more skill.
“Blind football is a sport that requires a high level of technique and communication,” Ken Liu, a representative from the Hong Kong Blind Football Team, says.
Blind football is a variant of futsal, a five-a-side game played under a set of modified Fifa rules and governed by the International Blind Sports Federation. It involves four visually impaired players and one sighted goalkeeper per team.
Visually impaired players rely mainly on instructions from their teammates who can see clearly and verbal communication among themselves, as well as the sounds emitted by a tiny bell inside the football, which indicate its path.
“It’s very noisy on the court, we really need to recognise our teammates’ voices to locate them. It requires lots of teamwork,” Liu says.
Defenders are required to say “Hey” when they take on opponents to prevent a head-on collision, but cannot say single words such as “Mine” or “Here” as these are too short for recognition. Spectators are also expected to be quiet and not disrupt the game.
The futsal court, 36.5 metres long and 27.5 metres wide, is surrounded by 1.2-metre soft boards to minimise the chances of accidents and the ball rolling too far out of bounds.
The sport was included in the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games, with world championships held every four years and Asian championships every two. While China has won multiple times in the regional tournament, few Hongkongers have heard of the sport, according to Liu.
Liu founded the city’s first and only blind football team in 2010 with five long-time friends. The men have been playing the sport since they were classmates in a school for visually impaired children two decades ago.
The team has six members. Two of them are blind, another two have glaucoma, and a remaining pair are visually impaired.
Together with two professional football teams and a celebrity team, Liu’s squad was invited last Sunday to compete in a four-match tournament as part of a futsal event called “Experience in the Dark”, held at the stadium.
Organiser Aladdin Football School wanted to raise awareness of the game and showcase how players such as those on Liu’s team have overcome challenges. The school provides free training to underprivileged students.
“I am quite confident of beating them, honestly,” says Liu, before lacing up against the celebrity team which includes actors Hugo Ng and Tsui Wing, who wore goggles for a level playing field.
“We are used to this, but they need time to adapt to weaker vision.”
The event was kick-started by former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who took part in booth games, including a blind penalty kick. Other booth activities included an experience in a darkroom and massage sessions by specialists who are visually impaired.
All proceeds from the event went to the Asian Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness.
Liu’s team eventually won the tournament.
Anson Li, an organiser, says he was inspired by Liu’s group and he understood some of their everyday challenges when he once tore a ligament in his leg and realised the city did not have enough facilities for the disabled.
“Through this event, we hope everyone can reflect on whether people with visual impairments deserve more care and attention,” Li says.