The Indian Blind Football Federation
The Gangetic dolphin is a species of dolphin that is indigenous to a portion of the river Ganga, India. The dolphins are blind, utilising sonar to navigate the water. These river dolphins are the national aquatic mammal of India. It is from them that the Indian blind football team gets its namesake, ‘Blue Dolphins’.
However, ironically, a primary challenge facing this endangered species is a problem that is hindering the growth of blind football as well – a complete lack of awareness of the matter at all levels. The very mention of words “blind football” in India is invariably met with the response: "but how can they even do it?". This was the same question that Sunil J. Mathew found himself asking years ago after witnessing a blind person running up to a football and kicking it.
With this in mind, he began researching and slowly getting involved in promoting blind football in the country. He formed the Indian Blind Football Federation (IBFF) in 2016. The goals of the IBFF are to provide a bedrock for the sport and spread it across the country.
IBFF is promoted by The Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC), a non-governmental organisation which works for the upliftment of the Visually Challenged (VC) community. SRVC was formed by M.C. Roy and Sunil J. Mathew in 2002.
IBFF is recognized by the Indian Blind Sports Association (IBSA), the Paralympic Committee of India (NPC of India) and All India Football Federation (National FA). The Indian National Men’s team is ranked 28th in the world and finished 5th in the last Asian Championship.
Tackling the issue of lack of awareness of the Blind Football across the country is a primary goal for the IBFF. However, IBFF goes a step further by addressing an often-neglected aspect of sport development in general. That is, the insufficient initiative to create avenues for players to be self-reliant, independent of what the sport in itself can provide. This is often seen as a barrier to so many aspirants of the sport. The team at IBFF hopes to tackle this at the outset. The IBFF subscribes to the idea that sport can and should be utilized as a tool for social development. They promote the idea that sport has the power to change lives and act as a social catalyst
The IBFF sets an example in the field of sports development by emphasizing player development on and off the field. In September 2017, IBFF started the Blind Football Academy (the only para sports academy in-state) in Kochi, India. Alongside the football aspect, the academy also offers vocational skill training to players to help support themselves beyond the sport. VC players are trained to be job-ready by taking advantage of current technological solutions. This allows them to be self-sufficient and seek employment in multiple fields. This training helps to level the playing ground for the VC community to enter the job market and showcase the sporting abilities of the differently abled.
Since its inception in 2016, IBFF has been constantly striving to make blind football accessible to the VC community. Today the game is played among more than 500 male footballers and around 30 female footballers across the country. We plan to develop a league system, a partially sighted futsal program and a women’s team for the 2021 World Championship as well.
IBFF has changed the norms for what sports development can be. IBFF does more than just try to create an environment for VC individuals to play football. It demonstrates how sports development can be a powerful way to facilitate an inclusive social atmosphere for the entire VC community.
Avram John Neroth is a volunteer with the IBFF.
Sunil J. Mathew is the Sporting Director and Head Coach at IBFF.