Did you know that Egypt has an internationally competing blind football team? Eihab Boraie payed a visit to their training session to learn about the rise of the sport in Egypt, the betrayal that stunted its development, and their plans for moving forward.
Superheroes are usually defined as individuals with extraordinary abilities. Take for example Marvel’s superhero Daredevil; although blind, his other senses are heightened allowing him to take down criminals that anyone with 20/20 vision couldn’t. The same comparison could be drawn to people with disabilities who manage to accomplish extraordinary tasks often overlooked. One group of Egyptians proving they’re capable of doing what many of us can’t is Egypt’s national blind football team. Living with visual impairment, this group has overcome obstacles that have earned them the right to be heralded as national superheroes. Recently returning from their first international competition, we decided to pay a visit to the team’s training session. In between drills Ali Aboulnasr, the team's coach, explains the beaten path of overcoming obstacles and bizarre betrayal that eventually led them to being Egypt’s official national blind football team.
Once an aspiring football superstar, I found Coach Ali Aboulnasr in a secluded run-down pitch tucked away in a side street market near Ain Shams University. The team was late, but that is expected of all those living in Cairo. Anxiously awaiting their arrival, Aboulnasr explained that this inspiring story began with five dream-shattering knee injuries and a sports management course in Scotland. “After I couldn’t play football anymore, I decided to study sports management in Scotland. One of my courses revolved around helping people with special needs. I picked blind football because it was the only football-related sport offered,” remembers Aboulnasr.
At the time, Aboulnasr knew little about the sport but found out that it has been around for almost 20 years. Although the goal of kick-ball-in-net remains the same, there are a few changes to the game and most importantly, a modification to the ball. “The biggest difference is the ball itself; it's equipped with six different ball bearings and while its moving it makes noise which the players listen out for to run after ball,” describes Aboulnasr. While researching the underground sport, Aboulnasr was excited to learn that it is viably growing and has its own World Cup tournament. According to the coach, “Egypt didn’t have a blind football team until now, but the sport has been around internationally since 1998. The African competition has 6 teams, the European has 12 teams, and the World Cup has 22 made up of just the teams that qualified.” Looking to bring an Egyptian team to this international competition, Abou El Nasr contacted his friend and partner from the start, Abdallah Emad, who had worked with the Egyptian Visually Impaired Parents Association (EVIPA). Not only did he help enlist players but has been backing the team from day one providing both financial and managing support. Just before he would go on to explain further, the team arrived and Aboulnasr returned to coach mode, getting practice started with some passes.
Before starting, each player grabbed their blindfold and placed it over their eyes. It seemed strange to think they would need it, knowing their impairment, but not every player’s sight is the same. According to Aboulnasr, “There are three different levels of visual impairment in sports classified as (B1), (B2) and (B3). Seven of our players are (B1) meaning completely blind. Three are (B3) and we have other players that are (B2), but (B3) have very good light perception: they can tell if its night or day, they have shape perception and about a meter of sight, so every group has a (B3) player who helps guide the others.”
To my surprise when talking to some of the players on the field, the idea of playing of football despite visual impairment wasn’t anything new. Passionate about football, some of the players took it upon themselves to improvise a ball long before the arrival of Aboulnasr. “We used to play with a football put in a plastic bag to be able to hear it. When we heard that blind football is a thing in Egypt we got excited and joined right away,” explains footballer Emad Daydamouni. Even though the concept of a noisy ball remained the same, the rules differed slightly to increase player safety. Describing the difference in rules, Aboulnasr explained that, “It’s a 5 a side game; it's not 11 a side. There are four visually impaired players and a sighted goal keeper who vocally guides the defense in their own end, while the coach is responsible to help the players navigate in the middle third of the pitch. Handballs are allowed but players must always say ‘Voy’ before making an attempt on the ball. If a team as a collective doesn't say Voy three times there is a penalty given.”
As always, in Egypt trying to start something new is easier said than done, and being an individual with an amazing idea it is often not enough. With the federation oblivious to the rise of the sport, and the government failing to help, most of the equipment was purchased out of pocket. It wasn’t until 2014 that a team was assembled and the official first training camp launched September of that year. However, as soon as the team got noticed, one of the people helping with managing the team decided to steal the team, the training techniques, equipment, and potential sponsor to launch his own national blind football team. According to Aboulnasr, “Our old team was stolen by one of the sponsors who helped us put on one of our early events. We had a very big falling out on how to deal with the guys, because he was very politically incorrect in how he talked and dealt with the players. We told him after that event that we are never going to work with him again.” Not all business relationships work out, but sadly this disagreement turned ugly. “Unfortunately and coincidentally, someone who was working for us stole physical stuff from the team so we fired him. That person then went to the sponsor knowing that we had a falling out with him and they collaborated on stealing the team. Together they started giving players and even one of our coaches money to leave the team and join them,” explained Aboulnasr .
Unwilling to give up, Aboulnasr started rebuilding a new team. Looking to bury the hatchet he refused to tell me the names of those responsible for stealing the team. The fact of the matter is that if Egypt wants to compete internationally it needs more than just one team to play a game. As footballer and computer instructor, Issam Abdelrahman puts it; “if we keep training all the time with no teams to play against, we will never get better or be able to compete at higher levels.”
For the national team to improve the next step should have been the first step; establishing a league. “We did things backwards! Everyone starts a league and then they have a national team that competes. What we did was build a national team, compete, and are now hoping that this will give enough exposure to the sport to start a league and have a competition on a local scale,” admits Aboulnasr. Despite going about it backwards Aboulnasr was able to successfully enter Egypt into its first international tournament in Africa in September 2015. Although they lost all their games, it was a symbolic victory and a declaration that Egypt has a national team in this blossoming sport. Obviously, no one likes losing but the tournament highlighted the importance of building more teams in Egypt.
Image courtesy of the team's Facebook page
In order for teams to start sprouting out of cities like Alexandria and Ismailia, a sponsor will need to be brought on board, as Aboulnasr and his partners are unable to afford supplying multiple teams with equipment. Beyond establishing a league, Aboulnasr is a strong proponent of gender equality in sports; however starting a female team comes with its own unique obstacles. “We have to coach by touch, so obviously when we said we want a girl’s team, we couldn't because we can't touch them so we had to either get a woman to volunteer or to train her to be the female coach,” Aboulnasr remarks. The lack of coaches needs to be addressed if a league is to ever be established, which is why Aboulnasr is hoping to recruit volunteers to turn into coaches.
As I watched the practice I felt sympathy for the coach who was responsible for watching out for all his players, which is extremely difficult to do when the whole team is visually impaired. Another stumbling block is the fact that a lot of the footballers don’t want to raise money from a public that sympathises with their disability. Instead, they’d rather be treated as equals to other athletes and hope that sponsors will see the potential in investing in a national team in an internationally growing competition instead of relying on charity.
There are several ways of helping this team flourish, from volunteering, helping to find sponsors, and most importantly spreading awareness. The moment when Egyptians think of blind football they often think of the film Ameer El Zalam, an Egyptian film that portrayed blind football as a comedy instead of an inspirational story of people with a disability striving for athletic equality. The truth of the matter was and is that blind football was exciting to watch. It is absolutely amazing just how much ball control and speed the players displayed on the pitch. It was as though their heightened senses gave them superpowers, a performance that Christiano Ronaldo would be incapable of duplicating. Hopefully the feud between the two teams will subside, as they both need each other. If they unify, chances are they will find themselves competing on World Cup stage sooner than the Pharaohs; and if they do, Egyptians will have Aboulnasr and Emad to thank for investing time and money in developing this fun and inspiring sport.
To show your support and stay up to date with their development visit their Facebook page here.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.