Berliner TageBlatt - Restoring hope with South Sudan's blind football league

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Restoring hope with South Sudan's blind football league
Restoring hope with South Sudan's blind football league / Foto: © AFP

Restoring hope with South Sudan's blind football league

When Mubarak Joseph Hilary lost his sight aged 15, the soccer-loving teenager dropped out of school and didn't leave home for seven years, resigned to a life spent indoors.


That was until he discovered the Juba Boys football club -- one of a handful of teams established in South Sudan's capital to develop the talents of visually impaired players, with an eye on eventually competing in the Paralympic Games.

"I used to be very unhappy and lonely, but since I started blind football, I now feel free and happy," Mubarak, 27, told AFP.

He now captains Juba Boys, which is participating in the country's first ever blind football league, with the final due to be held next week.

In addition to physical challenges, visually impaired South Sudanese citizens also face discrimination and unequal access to opportunities in a country already grappling with endemic poverty, violence and natural disasters.

The head coach for the South Sudan Blind Football association, Simon Madol Akol, hopes to change that, one game at a time.

"If you can see people who are visually impaired, they are... excluded from most sports. We see that this sport can bring visually impaired people back to the field," he told AFP.

"It was actually very hard for us when we first started (in 2020). We started with two players and it expanded till we reach(ed) where we are now."

According to Akol, blind football has slowly grown to involve more than 80 players who meet for matches in Juba, with plans to expand the game's reach to other parts of the country.

Blind football is still in its infancy in the world's newest nation, and the league organisers hope their teams can eventually begin competing in regional matches.

Two years ago, Michael Machiek became the first South Sudanese athlete to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo in the 200 metres category.

- 'Do the impossible' -

Four football clubs are participating in the league, which kicked off last month.

The ball is equipped with a bell that jingles, enabling the players to track its movement.

The goal posts also emit loud sounds so the players know where to aim their shot.

Each team has four blind players, assisted by two visually abled goalkeepers, guides and a referee.

Players are instructed to yell "Voy" ("go" in Spanish) when they tackle their opponents to warn them and minimise the chance of injuries during play.

Even so, injuries are part and parcel of the game, said Hilary, who runs a tobacco kiosk out of his home -- a tin-roof shack surrounded by lemon and guava trees.

The eldest of eight siblings, he used the proceeds from his business to resume his education earlier this year.

The return to school and the football pitch has helped him regain the confidence he lost when his sight began to fail in 2011.

"I first thought it was the end of everything for me," he said.

"I now know that I can do many things which I thought was impossible."