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Austria set the precedent for women's blind footballers

2020 marked the birth of Europe's first women's blind football national team - Austria.

Austria's women's blind football national team
Austria's women's blind football national team

The past year has presented many challenges to all of us, with millions of grassroots footballers across Europe frustrated by a lack of action. But through the difficulties, there have been many heart-warming stories of success in the face of adversity.

For such a tale, look no further than Austria, who this autumn were able to celebrate the creation of Europe's first women's blind football national team.

The country had already competed in men's and mixed events, but is now able to field a full women's team, following Japan and Argentina onto the international scene with others set to launch teams in the run-up to major events in 2021 - the UEFA-supported International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) international women's camp and games in England in July and the inaugural IBSA Blind Football Women’s World Championships in Nigeria in November.

A role model for European nations

Coach Joseph Steinlechner is delighted that Austria is leading the way. "I am incredibly proud of the development of blind football in Austria - I would never have dreamed that we would serve as a role model for European football nations," he said.

"This great achievement is the culmination of years of hard work and wouldn't have been possible without this great support we received nationally, but also internationally through the blind football development programme at IBSA."

"Team spirit, respect and enjoyment"

Veteran player Bettina Sulyok made blind football history two years ago when she captained the Austrian mixed national team at the 2018 Euro Challenge Cup in Krakow, Poland, and is delighted to wear the armband for the new women's team.

"It's just unbelievable how our team has developed over the last year," she said. "Each individual is very important to our team - each with their particular strengths that they can bring,

Austria join Japan and Argentina as the world's first female blind football national teams
Austria join Japan and Argentina as the world's first female blind football national teams

"Our coach Joe, who uses a lot of his free time on this project, plays a very central role in the positive development: he is a great trainer, motivator, organiser and an important part of our team.

"I am proud and grateful to be part of this team. Team spirit, respect and enjoyment of team sports - that is what makes our special strength!"

What is blind football?

Blind football has grown into one of the most popular sports for people with a visual impairment worldwide.

Played on outdoor, artificial grass futsal pitches with boards running down each sideline, it features five players on each team. All outfield players are blind but must wear eye patching and eye shades to ensure a level playing field (due to varying degrees of visual impairment), though goalkeepers can be sighted.

Blind football uses an adapted futsal ball with a sound system inserted to enable players to locate it.

What else is to come for IBSA blind football in 2021?

As well as the aforementioned events in England in July and Nigeria in November, IBSA will also be staging the Euro Challenge Cup in Stockholm next year – a development tournament for new and emerging blind football national teams.

Part-funded by UEFA, the tournament will feature six teams, including four international debutants.

UEFA, IBSA and blind football

Blind football was introduced to Austria through IBSA workshops and training sessions in October 2016 as part of its UEFA-supported Blind Football Development Project Europe.

The two bodies collaborate to provide all visually impaired adults and children the opportunity to play football in whatever form and at whatever level they can.

With over 30 million blind and partially sighted people in geographical Europe, IBSA's work helps tackle the common issues of social exclusion, lower participation levels, low self-esteem and self-confidence and social stigmas concerning visual impairment, and to promote the values associated with sport, and in particular team sports.

During the 2018/19 season alone, IBSA reached ten youth and women’s programmes in Austria, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, England, Finland, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia and Moldova with the ‘One player, one ball’ scheme, donating a total of 96 balls, 136 eyeshades and 10 pairs of blackout goggles for new and prospective players. Since 2012, IBSA has reached 43 countries with thousands of such donations.

IBSA blind football is one of 11 forms of the sport united by Para Football, a new global foundation dedicated to football for persons with disabilities.