Uttarakhand blind footballers aim for international glory

DEHRADUN: Sovendra Singh takes off at the sound of a whistle. He stumbles a bit but darts towards the ball, taking it past Shivam Negi flanking him on the left and a charging Vivek Kumar a little ahead. Sovendra soon finds the net and lobs the ball in. At the National Institute for Visually handicapped (NIVH) school grounds in Dehradun where they are training, a joyous roar erupts, mixing with the sound of the ball, which has a bell inside it, that jingles away. This would have been an ordinary sight at most stadiums, except that these boys are completely or partially blind. They are also national football champions.
The Uttarakhand football team for the blind won the All India Invitational Blind Football (IIBF) tournament in Kerala in May, defeating seven other teams to bring the trophy home. The team achieved this with a partially sighted goalkeeper although the rules stipulate that the goalkeeper can be a normal sighted person.
This success is not only a triumph for a sport overshadowed by cricket in India but also a victory of the human spirit, where a bunch of boys fought accident, disability and sometimes poverty to prove a point, not just to themselves but the world at large. The irony, though, is that the boys did not come back to any resounding welcome and most people do not even know about their achievement. This, however, has not deterred them. In fact, they have now set their minds on international championships like the Asian Championship at the end of this year.
The ultimate target is the Paralympics in 2020. “It is my dream that I play football at the highest international level,” says 17-year-old Sovendra, who was also player of the tournament in the national edition.
Ask him the key to his success and the shy teenager who is a playmaker, which is equivalent to a midfielder in the conventional version of the game (blind football is played with 5 players on each side), says, “It is important to keep up your stamina. The entire team focused on this by doing endurance exercises every morning for 2 hours without fail.”
His senior Pankaj Rana, who is the current captain of the Indian football squad for the blind, says that opportunities are opening up for blind footballers although the process is painfully slow. “There is a football coaching academy for the blind which is coming up in Kochi in Kerala. I plan to join there and continue to play professional football. My ultimate objective is to get the Arjuna award,” says the 19-year-old who played for the Uttarakhand team as a striker till he passed from NIVH to pursue graduation in a college in Dehradun.
While the players are full of enthusiasm and hope for the future, not much support seems to be forthcoming for them from the state government. According to Naresh Nayal, coach of the Uttarakhand blind team, “NIVH funds us when we go for tournaments but there is no help from the state. We do not get provisions for the special diet that players require. At best, a few sponsors arranged by IIBF give us kits when we reach the tournament venue. Even after winning an all-India tournament, there has been no recognition.”

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