Behind the brash mix of celebrity, scandal and media hype of regular football, there is a quieter, less assuming and heartfelt game being played. In blind football, known as Cécifoot in France, the game itself is only a pretext. For fifteen years, football for the visually impaired has grown in popularity in France, to the extent that the Olympic final was broadcast by a major TV channel. France is one of the driving nations behind blind football, championing its players and establishing it on the international sporting stage. And indeed France holds quite the record… Vice-European Champion 2013, European Champion twice (2009 and 2011) and finalist of the 2012 Paralympic Games.
In Cécifoot the teams are based on the level of disability, with categories: B1 for blind, and B2 and B3 for varying degrees of visual impairment. It’s not uncommon for teams to become incredibly close knit, with players showing true dedication to their teams and fellow players. Anthony Heurteau is the coach of the B1 level team known as Don Bosco Nantes, the largest club of its kind in western France. He’s also the assistant coach for the French national team, and for the past 10 years he has witnessed the evolution of the sport and the progress that has been achieved. “At the beginning, we were playing with simple training equipment. Strings and bells to mark the pitch. Now we have a fully equipped indoor arena, made possible by the urban soccer league.” He adds that, “This pitch allows us to train more regularly in good conditions, despite the weather, although we are of course still dependant on each other’s availability.” (There are no professional blind footballers.)
It is the close knit community created by the sport that draws together its players, as well as a passion and commitment to the game. Blind football is a highly sensory game, forcing its players to compensate for the lack of sight and rely heavily on their other senses. All aspects of the game are coded, which provides the player with a spatial representation of the match. In level B1 games, the guides are spread over three zones of play and have specific terms for their players, distance from goal, orientation, etc… The relationship between the players and the guides is one of trust and commitment, after all the players are scoring against, as Jean-Pierre Guichon puts it, a “goalkeeper who can see them coming.” And training indoors adds further difficulty, “it resonates, sound bounces off the walls and tends to disorientate the players, that’s why we play outdoor matches,” adds Anthony Heurteau, “and running in an outdoor open space is such a liberating experience for our players.”
The rules of the game differ depending on the category, but it can be likened to a game of 5 a side, with 4 faults resulting in a penalty kick from 8 meters without defence. The most common foul in a game of Cécifoot is not announcing your presence as you go in for a tackle. All players must yell “Voy” (the Spanish for “I go”) so that the player with the ball can judge the distance of their opponent. This is the universal term used in all blind football leagues, and originates from the South American heritage of the sport. There is of course no offside rule.
The ball is smaller than the standard football, used in “regular football” as it is referred to in the world of Cécifoot, and weighted the same but with bells sewn inside the leather. “You can really hear the difference between various brands,” Jérôme Pénisson explains, a visually impaired player who wears a blindfold to compete in the B1 league, “the Italian ones are the hardest to play with, they have such a unique sound. The Danish ones are much better…” These handcrafted balls go for 80 Euros, not bad considering the craftsmanship. Legend has it that Pele asked the Brazilian authorities to get prisoners to create balls with bells. Prior to that blind players in the favelas of Brazil were using footballs wrapped in crackly plastic bags.
In recent years, the French Football Federation has partnered up with the Fédération Française Handisport to ensure better support of national and local teams. The Mixed Championships are held over 3 weekends, and the fourth being the French Cécifoot Cup final. The Cup final consists of 6 teams within the visually impaired league and 10 blind teams from all over the country. The season is short, but understandably so considering the availability of players and the cost of hosting. The cup final starts in Saint-Mande, a pioneering Cécifoot club, with a friendly tournament. As Jean-Luc Lescouezec, President and Founder of the Don Bosco Nantes team and former international referee, points out, “We do the whole thing in a round trip, as we can’t afford the cost of a hotel for the night seeing as we’ve already paid for the TGV.” A far cry from the “regular” World Cup final.
The success and longevity of the sport is largely a result of the endless support and campaigning by Anthony Heurteau. The Don Bosco Nantes coach regularly organises awareness sessions with clubs and organisations. A year ago, the team went to Jonelière, FC Nantes training grounds, to talk to the young teams there. Jean-Luc, President of the Cécifoot Association points out that, “It helps to keep the young players grounded.” Initiatives such as Disability Commitment Week have seen GRDF, the French utilities giant, organise a game of Cécifoot for their employees. They were given glasses to restrict their vision, an induction into the game, as well as a presentation to get them into the right mindset. One of the employees remarked on the level of contact in the game, “It’s much more aggressive than I thought!” But Anthony Heurteau was quick to point out that the contact levels between players are no higher than in a regular game, reiterating that passion for the game is not dependent on eyesight. However, what does differ between the two games are the anecdotes, as the President of the Cécifoot Association points out, “the teams are mixed, we have had couples meet in our teams, we’ve even had our first Cécifoot baby!”