It was an all too familiar story in Tokyo last weekend (March 25th) as England faced their old rivals from Argentina. This time it was on the field in Shinagawa ward in the World Cup final of blind football and no your eyes definitely aren’t deceiving you! Blind football is very much for real and it really was a pleasure to witness such a spectacle.
The IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix took place in Tokyo between Wednesday and Sunday last week and involved six international teams (Argentina, England, France, Japan, Russia and Turkey) split into two groups. England lost the opening game to hosts Japan 2-1 on a cold and snowy opening day but then demolished Turkey 4-1 the following day. All three teams finished on three points but England came out on top due to their +2 goal difference and Turkey (-1) finished second due to their head-to-head record against Japan (-1).
In the other group, Argentina won both their games to finish as winners ahead of Russia with France bringing up the rear. There was even a 5th place match on Saturday that saw Japan beat France 1-0. It was the same scoreline on Sunday afternoon as Turkey saw off the Russians to claim the bronze medal and that was followed by the final between England and their old adversaries Argentina.
Memories of the hand of god (1986), Maradona’s mazy dribble (1986), Michael Owen’s wonder goal (1998), Beckham’s red card (1998) and his redemption at the Sapporo Dome (2002) were in my mind as I took the train to Tennozu Isle; an artificial island constructed on top of an Edo-era island fortress. Tennozu is on the Tokyo Bay waterfront and is quite a relaxing place that is home to offices, shops, open restaurants and cafés, art galleries and event spaces.
It was a lovely sunny Spring day and the cherry blossoms were supposedly at their best as I arrived at the station which is very conveniently located right next to Tennozu Park where this festival of blind football was taking place. I have to say that the tickets were more expensive than I expected and I really did think that both matches would be available on the same ticket. It was 2000 yen for the final match but I didn’t have that much on me so inadvertently got to see a bit of the isle (below) as I sought an ATM.
When I purchased my ticket on my return I was surprised to discover that there were respective ends for England and Argentina fans rather than everyone just mixing as I suspected would be the case. Whilst waiting to go inside (at the conclusion of the 3rd place match) I got talking to another English guy living in Japan for a long time, and we had a go at taking a couple of penalties each whilst blindfolded to get a vague idea of what it’s like for the players.
Blind football uses a special ball with a kind of rattle inside it which makes a sound to help identify how near or far the ball is to you. The keeper threw the ball to me, I had to listen for the sound, trap it, dribble it a bit and then fire home which I somehow managed to do successfully on both of my attempts….not that I could tell I had scored!
This aim of this event was help propel the national Japan blind team to competing at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo as well as promoting the game internationally. Many of you are probably wondering how the game actually works. Players rely on the directions given to them by the sighted goalkeeper, the coach who stands behind the opposing goal and the manager on the sidelines. The crowd have to be silent whilst the ball is in play so that such instructions can be heard.
Each match consists of two twenty minute halves but with the clock stopping like in American football or basketball, it ends up taking about double the time to play each half. Set pieces take a fair bit of time and each team is allowed a time-out too. It’s actually quite a physical game and there is a fair bit of obstruction and physical contact. There isn’t too much passing and close ball control and dribbling seems to be the key to advancing up the field. England’s aptly named Dan English was very skilled in this and there was a wave of excitement, anticipation and hope whenever he went on a run.
Argentina probably had the upper hand in a closely fought game and the England keeper pulled off a few fine saves (including a penalty) to keep his team in it. England had a good chance near the end too but there was an air of inevitability that it would go to penalties. There was no extra time and thankfully the spot-kicks took place right in front of us. Each team was to have three kicks but only two each were taken as England’s first two were saved and missed whilst the Argentinians tucked theirs away brilliantly (Check out the video below) to take the victory.
Heartbreak for England but given England’s woeful experiences of tournament shoot-outs since 1990, it wasn’t too much of a surprise!
A live performance by a band was eventually followed by numerous player awards (top scorer, best goalkeeper etc) and the trophy presentation to the team who probably deserved to win it given their record of not conceding any goals and winning both their group games. England pushed them close but in defender Padilla, Argentina had the player of the tournament who was a rock at the back and almost had a sixth sense for knowing where the ball was.
Despite the loss, it was wonderful to see the beautiful game played in very different circumstances to what I’m familiar with and I hope to see a game again when it returns next year.
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