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.

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