How does a blind person play football? (And no, this is not a trick question.)
One DIY (do it yourself) solution, as shared by national blind football player Mohammad Azwan Azhar, is by tying a regular football into a plastic bag.
The footballers would then play by following the sound of the plastic.
However, this isn’t the best solution as the plastic bag would sometimes come loose, enabling the ball to roll out.
“We then end up chasing only the plastic the rest of the time,” says Azwan, laughing as he recalls his schooldays of playing blind football.
Fortunately, in 2017, the national blind football team, which comprises athletes with full visual impairment (classified as B1), was introduced to a football with built-in ball bearings that made noise whenever it moved.
“Our ball rattles every time it moves, so it is easier for us to play and control the ball when playing in the field,” shares Azwan.
For the blind, hearing is the primary sense they rely on to navigate the world around them.
Consultant orthopaedic and arthroplasty sports surgeon Dr Badrul Shah Badaruddin notes that sighted football players can predict the distance of the ball coming their way visually, allowing them to plan their movements and avoid injury as much as possible.
However, blind players depend solely on their hearing, which has a more limited range than sight.
Thus, they may often need to stop suddenly or switch their movement abruptly to intercept the ball or avoid their fellow players.
“So if they’re not properly trained to know how to avoid injuries, it can be very dangerous,” he says.
Stretching, warm-up and cool-down exercises are also very important to help prevent injuries.
“They need good stretching, so that they can afford to do a lot of twisting and sudden movements during their matches,” he adds.
Common football injuries include the tearing of ligaments like the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
The ACL is one of the key ligaments that help stabilise the knee joint.
It connects the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia).
It’s most commonly torn during sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction, according to Dr Badrul.
Symptoms of an ACL tear include knee swelling, knee pain, loss of full range of motion, discomfort while walking, tenderness and the feeling of instability in the knee.
If someone has only partially torn their ACL, it can be healed without surgery.
The leg muscles will be able to compensate for the injury in the meantime, unless there’s an instability in the knee.
The feeling of instability is present when the leg starts to wobble while trying to kick a ball.
“If there is instability, physiotherapy is not enough as these players depend on their sudden movements, which proves why the ACL is so important,” says Dr Badrul.
He shares that if the ACL tear is not taken care of properly, other issues might arise, such as an ankle sprain.
This is because when one is not able to walk with the support of their knees, it stresses their feet, especially the ankle.
This will create more and more medical problems in the long run.
Thus, the patient might have to undergo surgery to treat the ACL tear before all these other complications arise.
“From an orthopaedic perspective, we can do a clinical examination and do the necessary tests to ascertain whether the ligament is functioning well or not.
“Of course, this is only clinical.
"It’s best for the players to come forward to at least identify any problem before they go to competition to avoid more detrimental and permanent damage to the other parts of the body,” he says.
National blind football player Rollen Marakim knows what it is like to tear his ACL.
He shares that his biggest injuries occurred when he tore both his ACLs during a match in 2014.
He had to undergo surgery due to the severeness of his injury and was not allowed to play for over a year.
The Sabahan, who is blind from birth, was very disciplined when it came to recovery time.
He religiously attended his physiotherapy sessions and took good care of himself just so that he could get back on the field again.
In the face
Another common injury footballers – and especially blind footballers – face are those involving their face.
National blind football team coach Sunny Shalesh shares the gory story of the time Azwan, who lost his sight when he was 11 years old, was bleeding severely during a 2015 match against Thailand at the 8th Asean Para Games in Singapore.
The teams were drawn 1-1, and there was only two minutes left on the clock.
During this crucial time, a Thai player had already marked Azwan and went hard on him as he dribbled his way out.
The opponent’s elbow struck Azwan’s left upper lip, resulting in massive bleeding.
He looked like a “bleeding vampire”, Sunny says.
The medical team at the match told Sunny to take him off the field, but Azwan stubbornly insisted on carrying on.
Sunny shares that this was a challenging situation for him as the final decision is made by the coach.
In the end, he decided to let Azwan, whose love of football spurred him to keep playing the game despite losing his sight, to continue playing.
Azwan was quickly bandaged up as a temporary fix so that he could resume the match.
He limped back onto the court to a roar of applause from the audience.
In the end, Azwan was the player running with the ball when the buzzer sounded.
The team, known as Harimau Buta, had scored another goal before that, making them the new Asean Para Games football champions.
Indeed, most of the players were hurt in one way or the other during the tournament, coming back to Malaysia as wounded heroes.
Keeping them safe
Sunny says: “For me, the biggest challenge I have is to ensure that my players are safe – that’s the biggest challenge as a coach.
"Winning comes second – when you play well, the better team wins.”
When the team was first formed, he and his players knew very little about the medical aspect of playing football.
This is hardly surprising considering that the blind football team started out as an initiative by Sunny, who gathered the initial team members – most of whom were from underprivileged backgrounds and working as masseurs – to form a part-time team in 2009.
Thus, for many years, Sunny and his team were on their own when it came to injuries.
“Before, we did not have medical assistance.
"So every time my boys say their knee hurts, we just ask them, ‘Are you OK? Can move? Can stretch? Then OK, can play,’” he shares.
Their first international competition was the 2009 International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Blind Football Asian Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
Not unexpectedly, they lost terribly as they had no real idea of the game at that time, compared to established teams from nations such as Iran, China, Japan and Korea.
On their return to Malaysia, Sunny says the results of their matches were more embarrassing to him than to the team.
“I was their goalkeeper at that time.
"So imagine me as a sighted football player, letting so many goals enter the net – blind footballers scored against me, who could see the ball coming!” says the 52-year-old with a laugh.
Unlike normal football matches where each team consists of 11 players, blind football only has five players in a team, similar to a futsal match.
And although the rest of the team is blind, the goalkeeper must be sighted.
Despite this poor start, the team eventually did themselves and the nation proud by winning a silver medal in the 2013 Asean Para Games, a gold medal in the 2015 Asean Para Games and a bronze medal in the 2017 Asean Para Games, among other achievements.
As full-time athletes, the team did receive support, including medical care, from the National Sports Council in preparation for the 2017 Asean Para Games and the 2017 IBSA Blind Football Asian Championships, which were both hosted by Kuala Lumpur.
However, as a result of them failing to fulfil their KPI (key performance indicators), their contract was not renewed from 2018 onwards.
Now, however, the Harimau Buta are receiving medical support from ALTY Orthopaedic Hospital and healthcare company Viatris.
The hospital will be providing support in the form of medical teams on standby during matches, physiotherapy during training, pre–competition health screenings, educational workshops on injury prevention and rehabilitation for the players.
The team will also be receiving an assortment of sports tapes, sports sprays and gels to better equip them throughout training and competitions.
Sunny notes that no one expects a blind person to play football, including insurance companies.
“If a blind person goes to the emergency room and says he broke his leg because he played football, they will think he’s crazy,” he says.
“With the help from ALTY, we can solve many things by learning how to avoid injuries and further prevent them from happening.
“It hurts me every time I see my boys hurt.”
Like all other athletes, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the blind football team’s regime.
Having only resumed training in February (2022), the players are doing their best to make up for lost time, especially with their next important competition coming up in November (2022).
This tournament, the IBSA Blind Football Asian Championships held in Kochi, India, is the qualifying round for the 2023 IBSA World Games next August (2023).
In order to make it to the IBSA World Games, the national blind football team needs to finish in the top three at the Asian Championships.
“We hope to receive support from our fellow Malaysians as we go forth on our next journey in this qualifying round,” says Rollen.
Sunny adds: “They lost their sight, but they never lost their vision.
“Not in their wildest dreams did they think that one day they would be national icons.”