“Guys, are you sure this is my house?” asked Vicente.
I’ll admit I had my doubts. My camera team and I had just led a blind man through a nondescript front garden in a Buenos Aires suburb and stumbled through an unlocked door. His poker face lasted a couple of seconds before breaking into the glorious smile that always follows outbreaks of Vicente’s dark humor.
Here I was spending the afternoon with the world champions of blind football. I wanted to see them strut their stuff on the field and find out how football affected their lives.
The coaches of the Argentine national team, known as The Bats (los Murciélagos), invited me to a training session to meet the players. The action was pacey and aggressive — typical of the Argentine vigor we’ve seen so often from Agüero, Tevez, Lamela and co. But watching from the sidelines as a newbie, I was left scratching my head after a player rounded half the team and feigned a shot, before placing the ball beyond the reach of the goalie.
Why the dummy? Turns out, the goalies can see.
The rest of the team’s members are either blind or partially blind, but they all wear masks to even up the playing field. The ball rattles, coaches advise from the sidelines and behind the goal and the players are obliged to shout, “Voy!” to avoid collisions. It’s a spectacle of noise.
The players seemed at ease with their positioning and aware of their surroundings — the custom-made blindfolds and occasional poor touch being the only clues of their visual impairment. Obviously, the style is different, as the game is forced to adapt. It’s all mazy dribbles and shots galore, while passes and crosses take a back seat.
Struck by the tempo and ferocity of the game, I tried to imagine the confused realm of darkness and sound they inhabited. I was desperate to get out there and give it a go, but unfortunately they were preparing for a big game, and embarrassing a pesky British journalist wasn’t on the cards.
When they trudged off the pitch, I realized they didn’t know I’d been watching. I felt nervous because I was new to this testosterone-filled football team and had never interacted with blind people. I made embarrassing gaffs, such as attempting to shake hands without warning and silently nodding to show I was listening.
We went for lunch and the guys opened up about their stories. One player, who had been paralyzed and blinded by illness, said he’d prayed to god that the return of his movement take priority over his sight. Evidently, he got his wish. Some stories were fairly matter-of-fact, while others were distressing.
The players said they were frustrated about routinely being portrayed as a sob story rather than a triumph. They reminded me that many of them were born blind and had never known any different — to them and their families, their story is one of pride and glory. In fact, they felt confident about the upcoming Rio Paralympics and were heading to Brazil and Germany for matches on the government’s dime in the coming weeks.
And so, the ultimate question in these parts: Boca Juniors or River Plate? Neither: the Bats support Manchester United due to their love of Ronaldo. I guess even a blind man can see he’s the best. Although I’d be well-advised to whisper it quietly in Messi’s Argentina.