At World Cup arenas, blind fans listen to the action

RIO DE JANEIRO - Two commentators sat in a broadcast booth at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, put on their mics and looked down at the pitch before narrating a World Cup game for an exclusive audience.

As the teams arrived, they began giving detailed descriptions to a group of people sitting in the stands. All were blind and visually-impaired fans listening through short-range radio signals on their smartphones.

For the first time in a World Cup, the sport's governing body, FIFA, set up the special audio system at stadiums with the assistance of Urece, a Brazilian non-governmental group that provides services to the blind.

"You must accurately describe everything: The atmosphere in the stands, the physical appearance of the players, their kits, the colors, the images broadcast on giant screens," said commentator Eduardo Butter, a 23-year-old journalist.

Some 6.5 million people are visually impaired in the country of 200 million, and many share Brazil's passion for football, attending club games with relatives or guides who describe the action.

The audio system was successfully tested during the Euro 2012 championship co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and there are plans to offer the service at Brazilian domestic league games, said project coordinator Mauana Simas.

Better than radio

A handful of blind and visually-impaired fans put on earphones during Friday's quarter-final match between France and Germany, sitting in the front row behind a goal and listening to every word as the crowd chanted and roared around them.

"It's really better than the radio, where there are a lot of commercials and commentators scream 'gooooooooal!' for a long time without describing what's going on," said Ali Herrera da Silva, 30, who was born blind and gained 20 per cent vision after eye surgery as a child.

The special commentators "give us precious details such as the colour of the players' shoes, their numbers, their facial expressions, their attitude," said Silva, a tall administrative assistant who plays Goalball, a sport for the blind, and wore Brazil's canary-yellow jersey to the quarter-final.

Butter said commentating a goal takes special care.

"These are vital seconds for our listeners who need to know everything so they can cheer with the other spectators," said Butter, who started training sessions in February to master the art of commentating.

In the booth, the two commentators alternate every three minutes.

While one speaks, the other looks for details that the other may have missed, like a Mexican wave, an angry manager or images on giant screens to which spectators react.

"There are a lot of things (blind fans) know nothing about," Butter said. "Recently, I took a group on the pitch and they were surprised to discover the substitutes bench. They were happy to learn that they were like bus shelters, but more comfortable." The commentators must constantly describe the ball's location in a game with no breaks.

"It's exhausting and very intense. We have no time to breathe," Butter said.

More games, please

Across the stadium, Moira Braga listened to the radio channel, FM 88.9, and was very impressed with the skills of the commentators.

"It's better than the radio or a person who accompanies you, who is often too nervous and into the game to accurately describe what is going on," said the 35-year-old actress, who lost her eyesight as a child suffering from a degenerative disease known as Stargardt.

"Here I can imagine how the players hug after a goal, I know when a player puts a hand to his mouth. Plus, you can feel the crowd roaring, which is great," she said after Germany scored the game's lone goal, defeating France 1-0.

"I would love for it to be more common," Braga added. "My dream now would be to attend a game of my club, Botafogo, with the same system."