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Bethany Society Shillong are champs at the 4th national blind football tournament

It was Meghalaya all the way in the finals of the fourth edition of the IBFF National Blind Football Tournament that ended in Bengaluru.

Fellow Meghalaya teams, Bethany Society Shillong and Garo National Blind Football Club, clashed in the finals, with Shillong emerging the clear winner, 5-0, with Gabriel Nongrum scoring all five winning goals. Klingson Marak was declared Player of the Tournament.

A loss in the early stages of the tournament provided a much needed dose of motivation, said Shillong coach Richmond Nongdhar. "Our first match was against Delhi and losing that made us aware of our weaknesses. The players came up to me and offered suggestions on what they needed to do to play better. After that, we won every single match.

"We deserve the win, adds Shillong player Hilter Khongphai, who is part of a music band in his state and started playing the game in 2017. "I always wanted to play football but thought I could not as a blind person. We started playing the game only in 2017 when Sunil Matthew of the IBFF came to us and spoke about it, thereby fueling a desire.

This was truly an epic tournament with 16 teams from across India making their presence felt with Manipur and Uttar Pradesh sending a team for the first time. Although U.P was outplayed, the experience has made coach Alok Singh more determined to work hard.

"This was a new and unique experience for us, said Singh. "The ground here in Bengaluru has sideboards while the ground we practice on has none, so this offers better protection on the field and reduces chances of injury. The facilities here are so much better too. Our players are much younger and not so experienced so when they come up against national-level players like Pankaj Rana from Uttarakhand, they feel intimidated. But we are determined to work hard, and this experience will give a new direction to blind football in U.P..

Blind women's football demo

There was also a demo match played between blind women's teams on the eve of the finals with female referees, goalkeepers, coaches and guides, another first for the IBFF, the aim being to encourage more blind girls and women to come forward, says Sunil J Matthew, Sporting Director, IBFF, credited with popularizing the game. Among the blind women players was Nagaratna from Karnataka who started playing a few years ago. "I am playing at such an event for the first time today and I am very excited, not nervous at all. I am looking forward to the experience.

This sense of excitement and enthusiasm has been steadily growing and indicates a bright future for blind football, believes Matthew.

We had 16 teams and 160 participants this time, which makes it the biggest blind football tournament in South Asia. All the other countries that play blind football have two or three teams. I believe blind football has a great future and we are now working in several zonal matches and qualifiers for the Paralympics. The idea of hosting this was to choose the best players for the national side. - Sunil J Matthew, Sporting Director, IBFF National Blind Football Tournament

The players picked from this national event will be housed at the Blind Football Academy in Kochi for further training. "So far we have received no government support but we are hoping that the amount of interest blind football is generating and the general push towards inclusion will change that, adds Matthew. "We can take only take it this far, after that the government has to take over.

By playing at a national level, the teams got the chance to understand what they need to build on. Naresh Nayal coach of the Uttarakhand team, said while his team scored the most individual goals, the players were out of depth in big game situations. "They practiced hard, but that temperament needs to develop. Many of our players are rather young, at school level, while the players from the northeast are good, tough and come to fight. Our players need to develop that mindset.

Singh is happy with the media attention the event received back in U.P and hopes this will encourage authorities to support the team. "We are getting some support from the government of Uttar Pradesh and this media coverage should help more. All this makes me confident of the future of the game.

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