China | For Brazil, silence is golden at 5-a-side Paralympic final

Editor’s note

Correspondent Veronique Dragonet writes that low-grade hooligan behavior intrudes even at a Paralympic football final. When one spectator objects to another holding cardboard over his head, “open-handed fisticuffs” result. “Violence plagues soccer stands in lots of places I guess,” she says.

A five-a-side field of six teams, Argentina, Brazil, China, Great Britain, South Korea and Spain, was winnowed to two for the Sept 17 final.

Posters for five-a-side soccer mark arrival of the Paralympic Games in Beijing. The Games trace their beginnings to 1948, when Sir Ludwig Guttman organized a competition in Stoke Mandeville, England, involving World War II veterans with spinal-cord injuries. (© 2008 Veronique Dragonet)

Beijing | Brazil’s got a striker so good he can score blindfolded. Felipe Marcos‘s goal in the last minute broke a tie with China and gave Brazil Paralympic gold, 2–1, in five-a-side soccer, blind classification.

Oh, and the goalkeeper that let in the goal can see … at least somewhat.

The goalie is the only one without a blindfold in Paralympic five-a-side. All the field players are legally blind to some degree, but wear tight blindfolds to keep it fair. Every elite goalie in the world gets some hate mail, but consider the goalie who is reminded that he has been burned by a guy who can’t see.

So for the field players the game means sorting out constant aural cues—a rattle in the ball, shouts from coaches and players, and verbal instructions from a trainer behind goal. But for the players to concentrate, they need silence from the crowd.

That means every shot on goal, every samba-esque move, every whiff requires restraint from supporters. Even a gasp brings a practiced glare from officials.

Naturally, most of the some 2,300 supporters at the five-a-side final, held at an Olympic field hockey venue, are from China. Paralympics organizers overall sold roughly 60 to 70 percent of tickets, with the balance of seats filled by groups of students or workers—whoever has time on their hands. Yet the crowd looks heterogeneous enough to suggest strong ticket sales for this weekday afternoon match—no workers, identifiable by identical union T-shirts, sit in clusters. Patriotic accessories, often flags available cheaply on site, are de rigueur.

Media interest is so strong that there’s no elbow room in press row—but fewer than half the journalists are using cameras, laptops or notebooks. It is a time for enjoyment at this final only a few hours before the closing ceremony. The ushers, too, neglect their jobs, letting their arms fall slack, forgetting to hold up signs reading “silence please” in English, French and Mandarin.

The Paralympics, in addition to the five-a-side competition, stages a seven-a-side event for players with cerebral palsy—a condition that can curtail range of motion in the limbs, with varying degrees of severity. Each team must field players of different mobility levels at the same time. [Ukraine defeated Russia, 2–1, in the Sept 16 final.]

Each Paralympics brings ugly disputes about “classification” of athletes, the task of assigning an athlete to the most appropriate group of competitors. Blind soccer is easy: everybody gets a blindfold. Cerebral palsy soccer is hard: doctors have to evaluate each competitor and place him on a mobility spectrum.

It is no surprise that team doctors often have a more pessimistic evaluation of their players’ abilities than the classifiers from the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA), the governing body of cerebral palsy football. And CPISRA is always watching matches. Its classifier has the right to upgrade or declassify an athlete if the observer sees less-impaired movement on the field.

That happened to an Irish player at the beginning of the Beijing tournament. Classifiers decided that his cerebral palsy symptoms were so mild that he is not eligible for the Paralympics at all. So Ireland lost one of its most able-bodied players.


The Paralympic Council of Ireland (PCI), the football team, its management and doctor argue that the symptoms of CP can be alleviated with athletic training. In fact, that is why the player, Derek Malone, says sport is vital to him. Irish officials question the world federation’s philosophy of cerebral palsy soccer if elite players prove too agile for the most elite parasport forum.

But there is another story behind the Irish football team’s emotional statements to the media. PCI’s high-performance director admits it was a risk to field Malone. The 28-year-old player started elite soccer in his teens but switched to athletics ahead of the 2004 Paralympics because of classification questions. Thus, the high-performance director says Malone’s disqualification was not a bolt from the blue, but he also intimates that other players should be reevaluated.

So where is the word of God, the FIFA rule book? It does not have jurisdiction in such cases. CPISRA governs seven-a-side Paralympic soccer and the International Blind Sports Federation the five-a-side. FIFA does acknowledge and partner with both federations in some aspects, but it is not clear if FIFA has any interest in joining the Paralympic family.

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