“They call him the Blind Messi!”
“He’s supposed to be this brilliant footballer, and I think a small piece on him would be interesting,” I suggested to my editor during one of our weekly meetings. “It could make for an interesting read.”
“Go for it.”
Blind football was first introduced in 2004 at the Para Olympics. It is a five-a-side game and the field is smaller. The ball has a sound-making device inside which aids the players. A game for the senses, the crowd has to remain silent so the players can hear the sound of the ball. The game involves a lot more dribbles and short passes than the 11-a-side non-blind football. There are also unlimited substitutions and the game has no offside rule and no throw-ins which mean non-stop action.
In Meghalaya, where I live, there are two blind-football teams. One is from Shillong and the other from Tura in the Garo Hills. When fans of the sport spoke of the Blind Messi, while I had my apprehensions, my intrigue piqued.
Gabriel Nongrum is 24 years old and currently plays for the reigning champions of the National Blind Football Tournament, Kochi. Gabriel is from Nongpoh, a village which is just on the outskirts of Shillong. He is the fifth of eight children whose parents are daily wage earners.
“I never imagined that I would ever be able to play football and now I play for the Indian team,” Nongrum happily utters these words on being asked how he feels playing for India.
“All my siblings play football and they love it; my two sisters, too,” he says.
The passion for the beautiful game, like many here, is organic and developed from just being round it. “I would sit by myself and listen to my siblings playing and I would just enjoy doing that and it was them who taught me how to kick a ball.”
Gabriel is small and fast, and has fantastic dribbling skills. When I watched footage from the Final of the last National Blind Footbal tournament, I knew I was watching someone special, something magicial, and the Blind Messi nickname is honest.
Gabriel lost his eye-sight when he was just 3 years old, and it was a harrowing period for his family, the suddenness of it all. Uneducated and ill-informed coupled with a lack of resources and unavaialability of the proper healthcare, his parents kept him at home.
In 1999, a nun from the Catholic Church heard about Gabriel and took him to Bethany Society where he started his schooling. Bethany Society is a school for the visually impaired in Shillong.
Gabriel lived in the hostel at the school, and it was here that the idea of playing footbal as part of a team was realised.
“When I was younger, the seniors at Bethany Society hostel would play football with plastic juice bottles,” he says. “We younger boys then also followed their lead and started playing recreationally but the hostel warden and authorities were apprehensive because of fear of injuries but we had nothing to do, so we continued to play.”
“I never knew there was something called blind football and it was only when some people brought the special football for blind people to the school that we found out about it,” he empahsises.
In April 2016, Bethany Society sent a blind football team to play in the inaugural edition of the National Blind Football Tournament in Kochi, Kerala. Gabriel Nongrum did not play that year. “I was not in school during that time so I did not get to participate but when I came back, I got to touch the special blind football for the very first time.”
In September 2016, a blind football camp was held at Bethany Society which was organized by the Society for Rehabilitation of Visually Challenged (SRVC). This was the first time Gabriel participated in a real match and as fate would have it, his team won. “This was the first time I could show my capabilities and the very next day I along with another player were invited to a coaching camp in Manipur.”
Gabriel Nongrum’s life is a story of quite the come up. “I never thought I would get to travel and see so many places and this year we went to play in Japan and we had a match against Belgium and the players were much bigger than us in size and we lost the match 2-0 but then we won 1-0 against Japan.”
“The game of blind football itself is fast paced and extremely physical sport and the four players of both teams on the field have to say the word “voi” every four seconds but the player who has possession of the ball however does not have to do so as the ball makes the noise,” Gabriel Nongrum adds. “Failing to do so five times will result in a penalty being awarded.”
It comes as no surprise that blind football first started in Brazil and Spain- which are both football-loving countries. The first blind football tournament took place in 1974. Three South American countries participated in the tournament. In recent years, Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia have also come far in the sport. These countries have salaried players. India does not have a professional national team.
None of Gabriel Nongrum’s success would have been possible without the support of his family. “They are all very supportive and happy for me, but now that I am older there is pressure for me to start earning as my mother finds it difficult to make ends meet with my siblings’ school fees and other expenses as well.”
The third edition of the National Blind Tournament took place earlier this year but Bethany Society did not participate. Gabriel was recruited by the Kochi team. He emerged the top scorer scoring 10 goals in 4 matches and the winner at the finals.
In November 2016, Gabriel represented the Delhi Blind Football Team in a penalty shoot-out match against the Indian Super League U-17 Delhi Dynamos team which resulted in a draw. This was a special highlight for him.
In 2017, there was a North-east regional tournament which Gabriel won with a team he formed with friends. His brother was the goalie. The goalie is the only player who can be partially or fully sighted.
India opened its first football academy for the visually impaired earlier this year where Gabriel is a student. The project is undertaken by the Indian Blind Federation (IBFF) in collaboration with the Society for Rehabilitation of Visually Challenged (SRVC).
There has been tremendous success in Europe with blind football. UEFA funded the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Blind Football Development Project in Europe. The project which lasted from 2012 to 2017 got some great reviews and has been hailed as a success. IBSA President Jannie Hammershoi in a statement said, “Five-a-side blind football has always been a popular sport for IBSA but in the last years under the UEFA-funded European Development Project it has progressed rapidly.”
To compare Europe and India would be unfair, but what is optimistic is the opportunity for Indian blind football players to play international football.
But the perennial problem that is the Indian sport beauracracy casts its sahdow here, too. For an apparent lack of funds the Indian National Blind Football team could not partaicpate in the Asian Championships in Malaysia.
“I hope the government will help us more; at least with our travel and food expenses and it is not like we expect a lot but even a little help with getting good quality balls imported would help us a lot,” he suggests.
Gabriel is currently at the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped in Dehradun. The institute is a centrally-sponsored one and he is taking a Computer course there. “I am here so I can get more qualifications to hopefully be able to get a job soon so I can help out with my family’s expenses.”
P.S: In a competition called The Northeast Blind Footbal Tournament that was held between 23 and 26 January, 2019, Gabriel Nogrum scored 16 goals and the the winning penalty in the final to lead his team Bethany Society to the cup.
Author: Jessica Passah
Jessica Passah is a Staff Writer. She has a B.A in English Literature from Hans Raj College, New Delhi, and an M.A in Public Administration from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.