Blind footballer brings game to visually impaired Iraqis

The new Iraqi team for the visually impaired -- though unofficial -- was born in 2018. Kinani, from Karbala in central Iraq, shelved all other sports practice to manage the team and secure formal recognition.
Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, rest during a training session at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024.  (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP)
Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, rest during a training session at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024. (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) - When football fanatic Othman al-Kinani became blind in 2008, the loss of his sight hit him hard, not least because he thought he'd have to hang up his boots for good.

Now aged 51, Kinani described his struggle to rebuild his life. "I even forgot how to walk," he told AFP.

"I had to rely on my hearing for everything," he explained, after losing his sight to glaucoma, itself according to him the result of using incorrect medicines to treat allergies.

What made the situation worse "was being separated from football," the Arabic language teacher added.

But years later Kinani's persistence has led him to set up the country's first national football team for the visually impaired.

"It became my life," Kinani said at a training session in Baghdad as he described how the five-a-side sport -- the format most popular with visually impaired football players -- had reignited his passion.

Kinani returned to ball sports playing goalball, a game designed for disabled athletes, through a local NGO he helped create for the visually impaired in 2016.

But goalball, in which players shoot a ball from a prone position across a court, served only to whet his appetite for a return to football.

The new Iraqi team for the visually impaired -- though unofficial -- was born in 2018. Kinani, from Karbala in central Iraq, shelved all other sports practice to manage the team and secure formal recognition.

He said the process brought him out of his isolation and the sport allowed his "reintegration among friends".

With the help of his daughter, who would write his emails, Kinani gained important support from the International Blind Football Foundation (IBF). In 2022 the Tokyo-based body agreed to send crucial equipment to the Iraqi team.

The official recognition Kinani sought finally came this year and Iraq's 20-member squad is now preparing for a tournament in Morocco later this month.

To attend training in Baghdad, half of the team, which hails from other provinces, travels to the capital three times a week.

Blind football matches consist of two 20-minute halves, played on a 40-metre by 20-metre field.

So partially sighted players don't gain an unfair advantage, all the players wear eye shades so that none can see anything as they follow the sound of the ball, which contains bells.

Only the goalkeepers are allowed to see and guides on the sidelines shout instructions to help the players find the way to the goal.

'Determination' 

During the training session in Baghdad, as one player came within reach of the goal, a guide urgently called on him to "take three steps and shoot."

But the game came to a sudden halt when a vendor selling water bottles arrived with blaring loudspeakers to promote his wares, leaving players unable to hear the sound of the ball or their guides' instructions.

Though the sport is still in its infancy, the Iraqi Blind Football Federation hopes to expand the sport nationwide through additional teams.

Tarek al-Mulla, the head of the federation, praises the "extraordinary abilities" of the players, despite the "difficulties" they face.

"Dribbling with a ball, mind and muscle coordination, these players distinguish themselves (by doing this) only through hearing," he said.

Ali Abbas, head coach for the national team, said he hoped the squad would keep improving, one game at a time.

"The players are full of determination, which encourages me," he said.

Iraq's Paralympic committee is still waiting for parliamentary approval of the team's funding, which would allow every player to receive a monthly salary of $230.

In the meantime 10 players will pay for their own travel expenses and accommodation for the upcoming competition in Morocco.

As he took a breather from training in Baghdad, captain, Haidar al-Basir, 36, spoke of his team's commitment to do their best, despite the obstacles.

But he explained that, beyond fear of injury, his greatest concern and his request to authorities is for transport to training.

"I had to remember the route to go from home to the stadium. There is also the lack of adequate transport," he said.

But "we are here to train and to learn, to challenge and overcome obstacles", he added.