This man is responsible for introducing light in the lives of many blind people. If you’ve ever heard of India’s Blind Soccer Team, then this man is its backbone. From managing an IT startup to working for the Society of Rehabilitation for the Visually Challenged, this man has motivated, mentored and coached a talented pool of blind people. Right from recognizing the right talent from all parts of the country to ensuring they represent India on international platforms, he has done it all. Introducing to you all the Shahrukh Khan of the Blind Soccer “Chak de India” team – Mr. Sunil J Mathew.
Motivation To Forming The First Blind Soccer Team
It all started in Jan 2013 when I stumbled upon a link which had David Beckham playing ‘blindfolded’ football with the England National Blind Football team. He said in his blog that it was one of his best experiences as a footballer; playing with with the naturally talented blind footballers.
Research took me to an address of the Indian Blind Sports Association in New Delhi which had adhoc National Blind Football Tournaments with no proper grounds or facilities. Some players had played before they lost their sight and then there were some to whom the game came naturally.
A small group of players in Kerala started the first team and went on to participate at the National Blind Football Championships; the only team from the South that year. We put together a team of talents which reached the finals of the first ever tournament they took part in! This achievement inspired us to start a national team which took shape by the month of August in 2013. It consisted of some of the best talents from the national championships, forming the first ever international team.
This team has taken part in the Seven Nation Thailand open tournament and has been participating in other international competitions like the Five Nation Hong Kong Tournament in December 2014 and the Asian Championships Rio Paralympic Qualifiers at Tokyo, Japan in September 2015. The national team is presently ranked 25th in the world (as of January 2016 International rankings), improving steadily year on year
Balancing Day Job & Voluntary Work
Having started SRVC (Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged) in 2002 with my colleague MC Roy, the two of us have been able to balance our regular day jobs and the voluntary work pretty well. The goal has been to rehabilitate, empower and economically improve the lives of the community by offering life skills training, computer oriented training sessions, music rehabilitation, foot reflexology sessions, and Blind Football training sessions to bring their talents to the fore and get them the much-needed exposure and recognition.
I’ve been running my IT firm- Systica Systems since 2004 and also been passionately working with the community to help with the computer training center, visually challenged orchestra—which has played more than 200 shows in India and overseas—and foot reflexologists. I’ve been involved with developing technological innovations and applications for the community through Sightica Solutions, a startup setup in 2014, which has been involved in developing Android Apps for the blind. A visually challenged Android developer is also part of this team. One of the Apps- ‘Netradaan’—India’s first Eye Donation App in English and Hindi—won the m-inclusion Awards at the mBillionth South Asia Awards held at Delhi in July 2015. Sightica has also won the NCPDEP Universal Design Awards in August 2015.
The inspiration and motivation for all this work has been the community itself!
My “Chak De India” Moment
The moment when Renjith, our main striker, scored a field goal to beat host nation Hong Kong in December 2014 at the Hong Kong Five Nations championships! The team recorded the first win in the tournament and overall ended fourth.
Identifying The Best From The Talented Pool
As the players come from across India—Delhi, Dehradun, Jodhpur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kerala—we have presently 12 active teams playing from different states. The best players are identified and shortlisted for training sessions from the national championships and we’ve been getting international trainers and coaches to offer training sessions before taking the teams for international tournaments.
The key is to train well and build a good physique with proper nutrition, which is the challenging task. The plan is to start the first training academy for Blind Sports at Kochi to offer intensive full-time training for players and help build a pool of players with corporate support.
Blind Soccer Scene in India vs the World
India never had an international side to this sport till 2013. The team has been solving, evolving and is presently 25th in the latest rankings (as of January 2016). Countries like Brazil had 600+ local blind football teams and have been World and Paralympic champions for decades. Countries in Asia too are far ahead in skills and fitness; teams like China (world no 4), Iran (world no 7), Japan and Korea have been offering intensive training and support from the grassroot levels.
This requires support from the center and corporates. Steps need to be taken to give the differently abled their deserved recognition to help bring these talents in limelight. Plans are on to start a full-time training academy to improve skills and fitness of a pool of players. We also intend to offer them employment and give them the right training to find jobs with ease.
Representing the Tricolor Internationally
The sense of pride and excitement to represent the country at the highest level is an unparalleled feeling which cannot be described in words. The moment the teams line up for the National Anthem and the tricolor flutters is cherished every time I go out with the team. The effect that the anthem and the pride of playing for the country seen on the faces of the team gives us strength to work harder and motivates us to keep pushing to improve ourselves in the future.