Young blind footballers take to the pitch in Mali

Young blind footballers take to the pitch in Mali

BAMAKO - In a classroom at a school for the blind in Mali's capital Bamako, pupils quietly follow a French lesson taught in braille but it is clear they are impatient to get outside to play football.

On the school grounds is a dusty red dirt pitch where three times a week, they chase a special ball containing a bell in a version of football for the blind.

"It's my passion," said Mamadou Thiam, 18, who has been playing for two years. "My ambition is to play in the big international competitions." Based on five-a-side, the fast-moving game is known in French-speaking Mali as "cecifoot" (from "cecite" meaning blindness) and follows the rules of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), with a few modifications.

Along with the ball, which makes a noise as it is booted around, there are guides on the sidelines, shouting instructions to help the players find the way to their team's goalpost. The pitch is surrounded by protective barriers.

Everyone, apart from the sighted goalkeeper, wears eye masks, so that the blind and partially-sighted are all on the same level.

Daouda Kassambara, an eight-year-old student at the Institute for Blind Youth (IJA), says the sport motivates him to work hard at school.

Cecifoot "makes me want to go further (in my studies), so the day will come when I will be a great player, why not even an international player?" he said.

Football fever at IJA has soared even higher with the World Cup games in Brazil. During class breaks, students huddle around a radio, lapping up ever latest detail, some supporting former colonial power France, some Brazil and some southern neighbour Ivory Coast, one of the five African teams in World Cup qualifying rounds along with Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.

Beyond the physical effort, experts say cecifoot helps the students build their confidence and independence, skills they will need for everyday life off the pitch.

Mariam Katito teaches physical education at a Bamako high school but spends her free time training the blind team at IJA.

"I have loved these children since they were tiny, and I have always loved giving them whatever I can," she said after a training session.

Alamissa Cisse, an IJA teacher who himself is blind, says the sport teaches the students "how to master the ball, the space around them, and above all teaches them communication".

"For example, with each movement, or contact with the ball, players should shout 'voy' (Spanish for "I go") so as not to crash into each other," he said.

Paralympic discipline

First played in Spain in the 1920s, 5-a-side for the blind and visually impaired made its debut at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

In London at the 2012 Games, teams from Argentina, Brazil, Europe, Iran and China competed in the final eight, but none from Africa.

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