How blind football is opening up new horizons for visually-impaired Ugandans

Many sounds reverberate around the Kampala field where a large crowd has gathered to watch a football match: the hubbub of a PA system as the players warm up, the muffled murmurs of hundreds of intertwined conversations, and — once the match has begun — the sound of the ball loudly crackling over the grass, allowing players to locate it.

All the players are visually impaired and reliant on unraveling all these sounds from one another to navigate their way around the pitch, so the crowd falls quiet during the match under the direction of some stewards.

The match is the brainchild of Blind Football Uganda, an organization founded last year by disability inclusion advocate Jagwe Muzafaru to promote and develop the sport within the country.

‘From a simple idea’

Blind football is an adapted form of five-a-side football, played with an audible ball on a pitch surrounded by “kick-boards” — a physical barrier indicating the touch lines — and without the offside rule.

“It began from a simple idea [after] I had seen football being played by people who were visually impaired abroad. And I wondered if we could start it in Uganda,” Muzafaru tells CNN Sport.

Originally, Muzafaru used balls designed for goalball — a throwing game created specifically for visually impaired athletes — that disintegrated when kicked, until June 2021 when the donation of a starter kit by the International Blind Football Foundation allowed him to realize his idea of a visually impaired football team.

Although football is one of the most popular sports in Uganda, it is not traditionally played by visually impaired people who stick to athletics and goalball.

“[Those sports] don’t accommodate very many people,” Muzafaru says. “Not everybody can easily be in athletics … even goalball requires a lot.

“When you look at football, you can train in one day, then you can start playing — and not everyone plays it, some come in just for fun and that’s the most important [thing]. But the major thing was mainly to widen the scope of what people with vision impairments play.”

Just a year after its formation, Blind Football Uganda now consists of four men’s teams and two women’s teams, containing mixed abilities and classifications.

Visually impaired athletes belong to one of three classifications — B1 for those who are totally blind, B2 for those who have some sight and can see shadows, and B3 for those who have less than 10% functional vision.

“Even if they’re not totally blind, we include them in our activities, we blindfold them, then we give them that feel to play around,” Muzafaru says.

Under the rules stipulated by the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) — the sport’s governing body — only B1 players can compete in blind football, though the goalkeeper must be sighted or partially sighted and is contained within a restricted area.

IBSA relaxed its requirements for women’s football in January 2020, allowing all three classifications to play together, and Blind Football Uganda is following this template in case B2 and B3 players are also later included in men’s international competitions.

For now, the organization is arranging domestic rather than international competition in the form of a league that will coincide with World Cane Day on October 14 and 15.

‘The prices of everything’

Disability sports operate under a web of international structures. As well as IBSA, there are non-profit organizations, such as Para Football, which oversee all forms of Paralympic football, which in turn are governed by their own organizations specific to each disability.

“Globally, the international bodies have to accept that Africa is also part of the world because you can look at … the World Cup for cerebral palsy football … this year. There was no African country that was represented, but they called it the World Cup,” Muzafaru says.

CNN has reached out to the tournament organizers — the International Federation of CP Football (IFCPF) — for comment.

This disconnect between the international structures and grassroots organizations is evident in Blind Football Uganda’s relationship with IBSA.

After building an organization without outside technical knowledge, using only YouTube and the internet for guidance, Muzafaru hopes to share his newfound expertise with the international organizations that promote the sport.

“Everything I’ve been doing, no one from even the international body … has ever even asked us: how are we doing it, how can they come on board and assist us,” he adds.

CNN has also reached out to IBSA for comment.

Despite lacking substantial assistance and with financial constraints currently limiting their ambitions, Muzafaru and his team are finding ways to circumnavigate these challenges by crowdfunding online and improvising some of the equipment required.

“I sit with my team, I tell them, ‘Can we develop something similar to what we saw on TV?’ … So we sit and develop something,” he explains.

“For example, when we look at the ‘[kick] boards,’ we make them out of wood. Then we cover them with some clothing, so that they can’t be harmful whenever somebody knocks on them.”

Some financial challenges, however, are proving more difficult to tackle.

As is the case around the world, rising energy prices are impacting on daily life in Uganda as the price of a liter of petrol has increased from Shs 4,580 ($1.19) in December 2021 to Shs 6,350 ($1.65) in July 2022, according to The Observer, a Ugandan newspaper.

“When you look at the current situation you have in the country, the prices of everything are going up … Last year, you could easily move people, we could fund them and then bring them to trainings … Transporting one person now to a training or to a game, it’s a little bit hard,” Muzafaru says.

Visually impaired people often live with their grandparents in more remote areas after completing school as they are unable to work, he explains, further increasing transport costs.

‘These things create a social life’

In this environment, Blind Football Uganda’s programs can alter societal attitudes towards people with disabilities and improve the mental health of the participating athletes, particularly following lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Most of the people who are totally blind, ever since when they went blind, they move from home to school, home to school,” Muzafaru says.

“They don’t have any other activities because even their parents limit them. They think that some things may be riskier for them because of the visual impairment they have. When you talk to their parents, when they … see them play, these things create a social life that they haven’t ever interacted with.”

Sport’s impact on mental health, particularly for people with disabilities, is well documented. In a 2014 study conducted by British Blind Sport, participants named competition, health benefits and social interaction as their primary motivations for playing blind football.

“It helps them from being in a situation such as depression, being lonely, [or] limited when they join or they come and play football,” Muzafaru adds.

Using social media, Muzafaru intends to grow the organization to regions outside of Kampala, providing more opportunities for visually impaired people to play football.

“People have seen what we are doing, and people have been inquisitive and ask, ‘How can a blind person play?'” he says. “So these sites are also helping me to mobilize people, an audience that comes to our events.”

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