Blind students gain confidence on the pitch
A female member of the Fuzhou School for the Blind's soccer team practices on the pitch in Fuzhou, Fujian province. LIU QING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Players at a school for the visually impaired in Fujian province face their fears, put their best foot forward on the field.
Visually impaired Olympic soccer player Wang Yafeng explained what it's like to run in the dark. "It's like there is always a wall in front of you," he said.
But sight is just one of the senses useful in his chosen sport. There are others.
At the Fuzhou School for the Blind in Fuzhou, Fujian province, where Wang is working as a coach after retiring in 2016, a boy plays with a specially designed soccer ball that makes sounds while rolling. At one point, he kicked the ball, producing the sound, and then ran the width of the field at full speed in pursuit.
Wang spoke to him gently, noting that the little player had been hesitant. "Are you scared of running with the ball again?" he asked.
He said it takes time, sometimes two to three years, for a blind player to overcome their fear of the dark, and he never criticizes a student for not being brave. Soccer is all about quick, precise reactions, but for a blind player, it also takes patience.
"The first step is to encourage them to face their fear, learn to run and then learn to run with the ball," Wang said.
He lets students feel the movement of his ankles, feet, legs and knees when he passes the ball and shoots. He wants them to remember the sensation and to copy it. A single movement may need to be practiced hundreds of times, he said.
Wang Yafeng helps a player stretch during a warm-up session. LIU QING/FOR CHINA DAILY
There are 12 players on the team this year, aged between 10 and 20, including five girls. The students practice an hour a day after school, from Monday to Thursday.
"We offer them the most basic training. What's important is to fuel their interest," he said, adding that some of the better players are chosen for training by the provincial team and that some have also taken part in national matches.
Wang began to play in 2005 as soccer for the visually impaired began to develop as a game. He joined the national team, which won a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008. Later, at the Paralympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro, the team finished fifth and fourth, respectively.
Soccer may seem like an unlikely sport for a blind person, but for Wang, the choice was simple. Recalling past glories, he said, "I could not have imagined what it would be like to play soccer, but when I set foot on the pitch, I felt wonderful."
He added that unlike sighted people, visually impaired players cannot easily protect themselves when struck or falling, so the sport is more dangerous.
He never invited his parents to watch his matches because he didn't want them to worry.
As a graduate of the school, Wang was invited to coach there in 2017.
"Sports opportunities for the visually impaired are limited. Soccer for the blind is a game for the brave－players need courage, patience and perseverance. I hope to create a platform to help the visually impaired exercise and join in competitive sports. That may also give them more choices in life," he said.
Due to their physical conditions, players sometimes run into each other while chasing a ball. LIU QING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Liu Zhan, 14, joined the team out of interest last semester. Partially sighted with blurred vision, he has to wear a blindfold to the field. "To face complete darkness is the biggest challenge," he said. "I feel that I have grown taller and stronger after playing soccer."
Chen Binting, also 14, thinks soccer is "cool", and she began to play when she was 12.
At first, she was afraid of running, so the coach would run with her. Gradually, she got used to running in the dark with a ball. She is also learning to dance at school.
"I was very shy before, but I've become more outgoing," she said. "I want to go to high school and university, and be a dance teacher."
Lan Tingyi, principal of the school, said that some students have left the team, but most have stayed because playing soccer allows them to feel the joy of running.
Before joining the team, some students were afraid of walking into things.
"The purpose is not to make them soccer players, but to make them happy and give them confidence,"Lan said. "Though most will not be able to make a living playing soccer in the future, they are healthier and can walk better."
Since it was founded in 2005, the team has taken part in matches nationwide, as well as in South Korea, Spain, Greece and Japan. Three former members took part in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. The school has a sports and art talent fund to support soccer fans.