Australia’s blind footballers and fans are set to reap the benefits of the country being a host of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with new accessibility measures that will make visible a community often overlooked.
Teams will compete for $110 million in prize money at the Cup, co-hosted with New Zealand, more than three times the amount on offer in 2019, it was announced today.
But while the focus on how the tournament can raise the profile of Australian women’s football to even greater heights globally, on a local level it is in the lesser known area of blind football that administrators hope to make big gains.
One benefit will be the roll-out of audio descriptive commentary (ADC), which helps fans who are blind or partially sighted to experience live games in greater detail. In late February, FIFA announced its search for fans interested in becoming audio-descriptive commentators for the Cup.
ADC differs from the kind of statistics-heavy, intermittent commentary broadcast commentators provide from the press box; rather, audio-descriptive commentators focus on describing every moment of the on-pitch action, match atmosphere, and player body language and facial expression. This information is delivered directly to blind fans in the stands via a headset.
FIFA and World Cups are pretty massive in terms of global audience, so it’s very exciting that they’re taking the lead on it.
Shae Robbins, a Melbourne City fan and Australia’s first internationally capped female blind footballer, said she usually listens to broadcast commentary over FM radio when spectating at games, so the introduction of ADC will – quite literally – be a game changer.
“In general, there is a delay, so there’s a lot that happens before you know about it,” Robbins said.
“With [broadcast] commentary, you’re still not sure what end the ball is at.”
Prospective commentators, if selected, will undergo two-day training programmes facilitated by the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE) across Australia and New Zealand. Previously CAFE coordinated training for audio-descriptive commentary in Arabic and English for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“FIFA and World Cups are pretty massive in terms of global audience, so it’s very exciting that they’re taking the lead on it,” says Dave Connolly, the sighted head coach for the Australian men’s blind football team and founder of Australian Blind Football (ABF).
In their final international friendly before the World Cup, the Matildas will face Les Bleues, the French national side with its own legacy in accessible football. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosted by France was the first of the women’s series to make ADC accessible to fans throughout the tournament.
Australia & New Zealand 2023 will be the seventh time a World Cup – women’s or men’s – has offered ADC since the quadrennial tournament’s inception almost a century ago.
Regarding the universal absence of ADC at World Cup games, Connolly said: “I think it’s a missed opportunity to engage people with low vision in more sports.”
Robbins is one of those people, having always dreamed of playing football, “like everyone else”. Her opportunity came in 2014 when Connolly approached Blind Sports Australia with a plan and a passion to develop a national body for Australian blind football.
Blind football, or football five-a-side as it is referred to at the Paralympic Games, is played by those who are totally blind, while partially-sighted players play vision-impaired futsal. Players wear eyeshades to equal their sight and play with an audible ball.
The International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) pioneered the internationalisation of blind football in the late 20th century. However, Spanish children began playing the game on school playgrounds in the 1920s. Its popularity spread to Brazil and France before IBSA commenced standardising the game’s rules in 1996.
Blind football secured its spot on the world stage when it was recognised as a Paralympic discipline at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, with the Brazilians sweeping the scoresheet ever since. As yet, no women’s teams have competed at the Paralympic level, though an application has been submitted for the series to appear at Los Angeles 2028.
Robbins was the only woman on Australia’s national men’s squad when the Bilbies – aptly named after the Australian native partially-sighted marsupial – travelled to India in 2018 for a friendly against the South Asian country’s Blue Dolphins. Given the emerging nature of the sport and player skill level, co-ed teams aren’t uncommon.
“At the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh cool, I’m the only girl.’ It was a real novelty for me,” she said.
However, Robbins spoke of how this novelty could become “scary” for some, recalling how female friends who had once joined her at local training days quickly decided not to continue.
“They all feel like the men are a bit aggressive, so a lot of them stopped playing because of that,” she said.
In 2019 Robbins attended a camp in Japan that saw blind and partially-sighted women fly in from around the world to train together.
Robbins said of the women’s camp: “It was a different vibe… It’s better because you’re all equal in a way. It was awesome.”
On March 8, the ABF marked International Women’s Day by announcing ground-breaking plans for a national women’s blind football program. This plan could see Australia add a contender to the women’s series in future Paralympics, and Robbins finally play alongside all women.
“Brisbane 2032, here we come!” the organisation wrote in a Facebook post.
With long-time volunteer and goal guide Bess Hepworth as head coach, the program will kick off in Adelaide with an inaugural women’s training camp in April. The camp will be made possible via state-based funding awarded by the South Australian Government’s Office of Recreation, Sport and Racing.
Robbins has since taken a back seat to the national squad after the birth of her son, but she’s considering stepping up again with the announcement of the female Bilbies.
“I really loved it [football], and I’d love to continue. It just depends on how things are going family-wise,” she said.
It’s a good opportunity to highlight women and girls, and also a good opportunity to highlight other forms of football that just don’t get the time.
Connolly is in discussion with Football Australia to secure national funding and recognition for the ABF but reports these conversations are challenging. However, Connolly hopes the 2023 Women’s World Cup will change this.
“We’re working with the FIFA Women’s World Cup Accessibility Manager around some potential ways to highlight [blind football]. It’s a good opportunity to highlight women and girls, and also a good opportunity to highlight other forms of football that just don’t get the time that others do,” said Connolly.
Moreover, it’s moves like FIFA’s introduction of ADC to Australian football that Connolly believes will bring more to the sport and illustrate demand.
“Ultimately, if people follow a sport, they might, as they get more passionate, say, ‘Oh, I really want to try to play this… is there a chance that I could play as well?’” Connolly said.
Last year Telstra and the Australian Football League (AFL) collaborated on the development of a prototype for the 5G Touch and Track tablet, a device that allows blind and partially-sighted fans to track the movement of a ball in an AFL game live through haptic technology. However, Telstra’s Sport and Technology Lead Chris Harrop said it’s “just the beginning” for innovations like this.
FIFA announces the total prize money for the 2023 Women’s World Cup will be $110M, more than triple what it was in 2019 ($30M) 🏆 pic.twitter.com/A63E3a0yjx
— B/R Football (@brfootball) March 16, 2023
“We’re really looking forward to co-developing the experience with the vision-impaired community, so hopefully, one day, we can scale this to all stadiums around the country,” Harrop said in a promotional video.
In the meantime, CAFE and FIFA are collaborating to create a new generation of professionally trained audio-descriptive football commentators, while Connolly and Robbins anticipate what increased accessibility could mean for the blind format.
Connolly said: “As the year goes on, women’s football will become a pretty hot topic. That’s only going to benefit women and girls more generally in football, and hopefully, that encompasses blind football.”
See here to apply for CAFE training to become an audio-descriptive commentator for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023.
For more information on Australian Blind Football’s national women’s program, email email@example.com
Main image: Dave Connolly awards Shae Robbins her medal at the 2022 National Blind Football Series at The Hangar, Melbourne. Photo supplied by Dave Connolly.