Bouncing back after Tokyo Heartbreak

Azeem Amir is leading a new breed of England Blind Footballers as the senior national team looks to regroup after narrowly missing out on Tokyo 2020 qualification. Simon Rushworth heard from a talented player and an inspirational talker.

TASS: Have you had time to reflect on last year’s European Championship experience and missing out on the Paralympics by the finest of margins?

Azeem Amir: We reached the semi-finals against Spain and that was an achievement in itself. We drew 0-0 with them in the semi and lost on penalties – that was our shot at the Paralympics in Tokyo gone. It just didn’t go our way. It was tough to take. Everything we’d planned for, for the last four years, suddenly counted for nothing. We’d beaten some really good teams to get that far but Spain were the best team there.

TASS: What’s the plan now for the England senior squad?

AA: We’re going through a bit of a transition period as a team. The Euros turned out to be the final tournament for some of the players. They’ve moved on now that Tokyo is no longer an option. It’s a semi-professional sport and I guess there were guys who wanted and needed to do something different. Some of them had been preparing for the Paras for four years and it’s a huge commitment – professionally and personally.

TASS: Is the sport itself in a strong position?

AA: In terms of the structure moving forward there’s some uncertainty. The thing about Blind Football is that it’s very tough to get involved in the sport in the first place and to stay involved once you’re there. It’s tough to reach potential Blind Footballers because there are relatively few opportunities to play the game. We only have three clubs in the whole of the country!

TASS: How does that affect the talent pool in terms of new players coming through?

AA: We have got a few good young talents coming through the ranks. I’d class myself as someone who can make that step up to becoming a first team regular in the next few years.

But we’re also looking to fast track some of the younger players to fill the gaps left by the lads who’ve left the squad. After September we enter the next Paralympic cycle and the focus will switch to 2024.

TASS: You met representatives from Brazil’s Blind Football community as part of a TASS visit last year…how do the two nations compare?

AA: In England we have a handful of players who are full time whereas in Brazil they have two squads that are full-time. Brazil have won the last three Paralympic tournaments so they have a greater argument for securing more funding. It’s a chicken and egg thing – unless England improve at the highest level we won’t receive more funding but without more funding it will be hard to improve.

TASS: How challenging is it for England’s Blind Footballers to narrow the gap between themselves and the best in the world?

AA: I normally get to train in a group once a week and that involves an hour’s commute. But I’m one of the lucky ones in terms of having a club so close to me. I live in Rochdale and my local club is in Merseyside! But it’s the only team in the north of England. Imagine if I lived in Newcastle? Compare that with the Brazilian players who are training every day, twice a day, seven days a week in a group of 20. You can see why there’s a such a gulf between them and us. So, as well as representing my country I’m on a mission to raise awareness around Blind Football and try to set up more opportunities for Blind Footballers. At the end of the day we’re not playing enough games or training enough at the top level and that stems from too few players coming through or playing the game at every level. If the grassroots game isn’t developing players then it will ultimately impact upon the national team.

Azeem (right) playing Blind football

TASS: How much of a difference does your TASS support make?

AA: I’ve been on TASS for three years now. I’ve had some excellent support in terms of strength and conditioning. It’s a great package – especially if you’re at a university that doubles up as a TASS delivery site. I’m based at Salford University and I travel to south Manchester for my TASS support. The medical support is unbelievable and for someone in my position it goes a long, long way. I love being part of the TASS network. It feels like a community and the variety of athletes I get to meet and work alongside is fantastic – there’s no distinction between a weightlifter and a Blind Footballer as far as TASS is concerned. They’re both dual career athletes who can benefit from focused support to reach their goals.

TASS: You’re fully committed to your education but how difficult is it to manage a dual career lifestyle?

AA: I’m in my last semester of Business Management with Sport at Salford. I think I’m on course for a first which, given the amount of university time I’ve had to miss, is something I’m very proud of. There has been a strong support network in place but of course it’s been hard to juggle my football with my studies. I’m just hoping that the decision to do both will reap rewards in the future. Fingers crossed. A good degree sets you apart but it’s not the be all and end all. I’ve always had that attitude.

TASS: You’ve also burst onto the scene as a popular TedX speaker. Tell us more…

AA: It started when I was asked to go into schools to deliver ‘role model’ talks. They went really well. I started branching out to colleges, universities and awards evenings. That led on to bigger corporate events and the TedX talks. You can link Bind Football into so much. But of the people giving TedX talks around the world I think only three per cent are under the age of 21. I’m quite lucky to have the opportunity to do what I do but I love it. I enjoy giving my thoughts and opinions on a range of issues. And I’ve always enjoyed doing the things that people think you can’t do as a blind person. If someone tells me I can’t do something, then that’s it – the next thing you know I’m doing it