Blind Ambition Prompts Brazil Partnership

Blind football is booming in Brazil but European nations are playing catch-up when it comes to excelling in a sport capable of transforming lives and changing perceptions. Simon Rushworth reports on a bold TASS initiative designed to redress the balance…with a little help from those who know best.

Brazil is synonymous with football from the busy streets of Sao Paulo to the golden beaches of the Copacabana. From Pele to Ronaldo, Marta to Formiga, the list of national heroes making headlines on the global stage is endless. But a new generation of crack Brazilian footballers is making its mark in 2020. And they’re blind.

“We have 450 footballers classed as B1 (completely blind) playing for 40 teams in three regional championships,” explains Maira Fiorentino de Oliveira e Silva of Brazil’s Confederation of Visually Impaired Sports (CBDV). “Thanks to a national training programme, blind children get to experience a full range of sports and football is often the one that fits them best.

“When children with talent are identified there are specialist sport schools that will provide them with more training. They progress to a club or, in the case of the most talented, the Brazilian Under 13 team.”

The CBDV runs national teams at Under 13, Under 23 and senior level with plans to expand this programme in the future. For now, the specialist training and pathway for emerging blind footballers is seen as a beacon of excellence worldwide. That support and structure is recognised by the fact that Brazil is the leading nation for blind football in the world.

“We wanted to learn from the Brazilians and look at how they’ve developed the sport of blind football,” says Colin Allen, TASS National Lead (Operations). “When it comes to blind football European countries are lagging behind.

“In able-bodied football Europe boasts 15 of the top 20 nations. When it comes to blind football only two of the top 20 nations hail from Europe: England and Spain.

“We wanted to understand why that was and what could be done to improve the situation for blind football players in Europe.”

TASS sought funding from the European Union to launch a study into the disparity in the provision and development of blind football on a global level. A European delegation headed to Sao Paulo last year to gain an understanding of the situation in South America and a reciprocal visit enabled a Brazilian delegation to gain first-hand experience of blind football in England.

Blind Football in action at the RNC – Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford

“We were able to gain an invaluable overview of Brazilian structures and programmes,” adds Colin. “We had the opportunity to bring our hosts back over here and it was a chance to develop what can become an invaluable partnership. We were joined by experts from Ireland and the Netherlands and the outcome was a renewed determination to develop the blind football environment across Europe.”

For Maira an illuminating trip to the UK revealed the giant strides England is making to improve the facilities and coaching available to blind footballers. The Brazilian group visited Loughborough University where they were able to hear from the Head of Para Sport, Nik Diaper. A trip to Manchester City’s Academy included an address from inspirational England star Azeem Amir. And Maira and her colleagues were taken on a tour of the Football Association’s St George’s Park headquarters before meeting the FA Disability Football’s Talent Pathway Manager and Blind Football’s Head Coach.

Learning from the best – Jonathan Pugh (England Blind team Head Coach) and Adam Bendall (England Blind team Assistant Coach) with Members of the Brazilian delegation at St. George’s Park

There was also an opportunity to assess the facilities at the Royal National College for the Blind’s Hereford campus.

“Our group thought the facilities there were good and well organized,” adds Maira. “The RNC is ideal for the preparation of athletes. The best facility we have in Brazil that can be compared to it is the Brazilian Paralympic Training Center in Sao Paulo.

“But Brazil is a huge country and, unfortunately, we do not have another facility with a high level like the RNC.”

Nevertheless, Brazil leads the way as far as success on the blind football field is concerned. So how can TASS help their European partners to emulate that success and bottle it?

“The next step is capturing the learning and putting into a report that can be used as a blueprint for best practice in terms of developing blind football,” explains Colin.

“Most importantly – and this is key to the legacy of the programme – the Brazilians are keen to collaborate and work together in the future. Talks are ongoing with a view to European coaches going over there to learn from their South American colleagues.”

Brazil might be the pre-eminent nation in the world when it comes to football on every level but Maira insists her country still has lots to learn – especially when it comes to promoting the dual career approach to elite sport favoured by TASS.

“What motivates those involved in blind football in Brazil to be partners with TASS is the desire we have to contribute to the development of blind football across the world,” she adds.

“We want it to become an increasingly competitive sport that can transform society and athletes’ lives, creating opportunities for them to develop and conquer their space in society through sport.

“TASS is an institution that does good work to ensure that the athlete can be educated and develop itself in the sport at the same time. Brazil has a lot to learn to create more opportunities for its athletes in this respect.