The Blind Football Bundesliga starts next weekend and FC St. Pauli is once again one of the favourites. We take a brief look at the schedule and spoke to keeper Sven and outfield player Hippo to get in the mood for the season.
(Cover picture: Stefan Groenveld)
For all those who have not yet come into contact with blind football, here are a few quick facts: The game is played on a smaller football pitch in a five-a-side format with four players and a (sighted) goalkeeper. There are small metal balls in the ball that make it rattle. There is a barrier on the side lines. The goalkeeper and guides at the halfway line and behind the opponent’s goal provide acoustic assistance to the field players. The most important communication between the players, especially with the opponents, is the shouting of “Voy! (Spanish, meaning: “Here I come”), with which one moves and warns others. Anyone who forgets to do this commits a foul. Since collisions cannot always be avoided, all players wear head protection in addition to blackout goggles and eye pads.
And if you want to find out more about the FCSP blind football team, you can visit the following digital channels:
Bundesliga Campaign 2021
This year’s season will start with eight teams playing against each other in a single round on five dates, the first matchday taking place next weekend (Saturday & Sunday) in Berlin. This will be followed by match days in Trier and Stuttgart, before play in Hamburg on 16/17 October and the final matchday in Bonn on 30 October.
In contrast to the last years, there will be no placement matches; the German champion will be decided according to an every-one-against-each mode.
For the first time, a team from abroad will take part, BSV 1958 Vienna will be the opening opponent of our Brown and Whites on Saturday.
Interview with Sven and Hippo
After the preparation match against Hertha BSC, I met with keeper Sven Gronau and outfield player Philipp “Hippo” Versen.
MillernTon: Hello Sven, hello Hippo, first tell us how you came to play for FC St. Pauli in the Blind Football Bundesliga.
Sven: For me, it was the St. Pauliade 2010, a multi-sport tournament of all departments at FC St. Pauli, where I got into conversation with the first people from the team. At the next New Year’s reception, Katja and Michael Löffler, who were the founders of the team, approached me. They said they didn’t have a goalkeeper for the 2011 season and that they were looking for someone from the handball team. But before I asked around, I thought I’d just try it myself – and it was so much fun that I stuck with it.
Hippo: In my case, I actually wanted to play football normally – but I got little to no playing time in my football club at the time and didn’t feel comfortable there either. At that time, I was already in a class with Paul and Joni (Jonathan Tönsing) here at the Educational Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired on Borgweg, and I noticed that they were looking for goalkeepers. As a result, I was here more often for training and also played in goal at first, until Serdi charmingly pointed out to me that I didn’t stand a chance in goal in the division – and whether I wouldn’t like to try it in the field.
I was then slowly moved from the goal to the field, at first I played half in the field and half in the goal, but it got better quite quickly on the field and then I played there more and more.
MT: How old were you when you started here? And, if you’d like to tell us, how did you become visually impaired?
Hippo: When this started in goal, I was about 14 years old, which is then also the minimum age for the Bundesliga. My visual impairment is congenital, but unfortunately, it intensifies with time.
I had cloudy lenses at birth, which also had to be removed. After about eight years, they wanted to put them back in, but there was a choroidal haemorrhage in one eye, which also caused my vision to fade there. Since then, I mainly see out of my left eye and have very high eye pressure, which I can control with medication.
I had several operations, but they did not have the desired success.
MT: I learned today that you are allowed to play in the Bundesliga with your eyes glued shut, but at the same time you are not eligible to play for the national team because you have too much vision for that – it has to be less than 1%.
Why are there these different regulations?
(Further explanation: Wikipedia)
Sven: It is divided into categories from B1 to B4, with different gradations in percentages of the visual acuity in the stronger eye – and for international matches, you are only eligible to play with B1. This is of course a great pity for players like Hippo, but unfortunately, it is the current regulation.
For the Bundesliga it is different – and actually for positive reasons, namely the very good medical care in Germany. We have far fewer people who are fully blind – accordingly, we probably wouldn’t be able to get any more teams together for the Bundesliga if this regulation existed here as well. The situation is different in other countries, where there are many more potential players who meet the criteria.
MT: Please tell us what the time commitment is for you to participate in this team. Team training is probably not enough?
Hippo: Professionally, I’m doing full-time training at the moment, but after that, blind football comes first for me. We train as a team for two hours on Tuesdays and currently three hours on Fridays, here at Borgweg. In addition, I go to the gym twice a week for strengthening exercises.
MT: Do you feel comfortable in the gym as a visually impaired person or do you feel like an exotic?
Hippo: I am very well accepted there and I also know a few people with whom I have already talked about blind football. But I still have enough vision to ride a bike on my own, and I get to training often enough with it and have just moved out of my parents’ house – so I’m very independent.
MT: What about strength training in general – do you also do it as a team?
Hippo: If you want, you also get support from the coaches, but that is more of an individual thing and is your own responsibility. Here, we tend to concentrate on working with the ball or on tactics.
MT: How is the cooperation between the association and the centre for the blind? Is there a network and structure or is it more by chance when someone new joins?
Hippo: It’s more a matter of individual contacts. Our coach Wolf does the AFM listening reportage for the blind and visually impaired in the stadium, and years ago he asked Joni if he would like to join the blind football team – and in the meantime, he has become an international player. In my case, it was more the contact with Joni and Paul.
Sven: Wolf has been a sports club instructor here at the school for several years. That’s where he met our new co-trainer Jonas and was able to get him interested in our club training.
MT: What was your personal connection to St. Pauli before you started here?
Hippo: I was a football fan in general, but without a specific club. There were more St. Pauli fans than HSV fans in my class and I generally liked FC St. Pauli a lot outside of football. The variety of departments and the fact that you are always welcome there is something I don’t get at other clubs.
At HSV there is wheelchair basketball, but no football for the blind, for example. And at the latest when you play for the FCSP in a Bundesliga team, you naturally become more and more of a fan of that club over time, no question about it.
Before the pandemic, I was usually also at every home game, mostly in the standing area of the Gegengerade, facing south. I can still follow the game well, only when the ball is in the corner in front of the main stand and the north curve, it’s a bit difficult. That’s why I don’t need the visually impaired reportage.
MT: There is a new rule for the Bundesliga this season, the final matchday that was held in the last few years is no longer necessary. So, as before, everyone plays against everyone else – but afterwards, you don’t have to confirm your ranking against your neighbour in the table. Since this has cost you several titles in the past, you are probably very happy about it?
Hippo: We certainly had a lot of bad luck, especially since the pitch conditions were not favourable for us in the final and we also had a lot of bad luck with injuries, especially last year.
But of course, we can’t rest on our laurels because we’ve always won the group stage in the last few years – because we have to do that again this year to become German champions. And that is exactly our goal.
MT: For the first time there is a team from abroad in the Bundesliga, BSV 1958 Wien. How did that come about?
Sven: The team has been around since 2016 and we have known them for about three years from the tournament in the Czech Republic, among other things. They used to compete as ÖBSV (Austrian Disabled Sports Association), but now there is this name for the national league. They played in the Central European Division with Brno, Prague, Budapest, Wroclaw and Krakow – which was better in terms of space, but of course difficult in terms of language. Two years ago, the first efforts were made to switch to the Bundesliga – and then, of course, there is a lot of work to be done with German associations and leagues.
I am very much looking forward to it. They are super committed people, and the players don’t all come from Vienna either, some of them have to travel over an hour to train, so the team will certainly be an enrichment.
MT: Do you foresee capacity problems for the division at some point? Has the upper limit been reached with eight teams?
Sven: We already had nine teams and I personally don’t see a problem. Of course, that would result in 1-2 more match days, but even a 10-team division would not be a problem in non-pandemic times.
MT: The season opens on the 21st of August in Berlin, the matchday in Hamburg takes place in mid-October and before that, you also have the “Keep your mind wide OPEN” in Hamburg, both here again on Borgweg. Why isn’t there another city match day at the Rathausmarkt?
Sven: Of course we prefer to play at Borgweg, we know everything here and the infrastructure is there. However, the city match days are organised by the respective state football association and not by the clubs, and this year it is in Trier and Bonn. But I do believe that Hamburg will apply again in the coming years.
MT: From the outside, the whole division, including players, referees, coaching teams, etc., looks like one big family. Is that really the case or does the BVB team only exist because Schalke already had one?
Sven: Oh, you could say that we are a really big family and that friendships exist across club boundaries. On Bundesliga match days, everything is well-timed and time for friendly contacts falls by the wayside a bit, but it’s all the more pleasant and more “together” at the tournaments.
Of course, there are players who have their favourite enemies, as in other sports, but it’s all friendly. In the case of Schalke and BVB, there was one local club each, and S04 then asked VfR Gelsenkirchen if they wouldn’t want to play for Schalke – and maybe BVB actually had to follow suit. They then made the existing team from Dortmund-Kirchderne an offer to play for Borussia. The attention gained from this is also good for the division.
MT: Let me come back to the “favourite opponents”: The test match against Hertha today was very physical, especially from the opponent – your strength training may certainly help you, but not everyone in the team has the physical prerequisites.
Hippo: That’s certainly the case, but that’s not supposed to be our topic. We don’t want to play so physically, we want to run the ball and win the games that way.
That might not always work in every situation, but at least it worked well enough today. (Note: The game was won 8:0).
MT: There is a discussion in football, especially at FC St. Pauli, that women’s football is a derogatory term because it sounds like a separate sport (shortened). Do you have a similar discussion or is “blind football” accepted as a term because it is a separate sport?
Sven: As you can see from our hesitation, no one has asked us about this yet and I don’t think there is any such consideration. A different pitch, rules based on futsal, a different ball – so the term for a modified form of football is okay.
At the Paralympics, for example, it’s also called five-a-side football, so the idea would be okay. But at least many more people than in the past know what to do with football for the blind.
Hippo: Yes, I see it that way too. Even people who hear the term for the first time have at least a rough idea, even if it is associated with great astonishment. If one were to formulate this in a more neutral way and the term “blind” was no longer there, that would probably be rather unhelpful.
MT: Do you have the feeling that the sport itself is becoming better known? Has there also been a development over the years?
Sven: In the St. Pauli cosmos for sure, we have reached a lot of people over the years. But we are certainly a bit spoiled, you always notice that when you leave this “hood”. I don’t believe, for example, that you would get the same percentage of “Yes, I’ve heard of that” at Hertha, Schalke or BVB as at the Millerntor.
MT: Now you talk a lot about tactics here, your different line-ups are marked with letters. Do you watch football at the Millerntor differently now than before because your tactical understanding of blind football helps you?
Hippo: Not really. But I’m not as much into the tactical details as I am with blind football. And there we are again in different sports and we are talking about eleven instead of five people per team.
Sven: On the other hand, there are of course things that we can learn in detail. Pressing, tackling and much more, blind football is of course also developing further. Passing behind the chain works in football, why shouldn’t it work in blind football? It’s just very training-intensive, but there are other examples of such topics.
MT: Are there any additional things you would like to see from the club?
Hippo: Of course there are always small details that could be better, but basically we are very satisfied. What was annoying was the incident after our German championship when we were supposed to do a lap of honour in the stadium and then the Rabauken were preferred to us.
But apart from that, we are being supported very well, especially by our sponsor, the DKB, and the AFM.
Sven: Yes, the lap of honour was annoying, but apart from that we really can’t complain. It’s all very appreciated and especially compared to other clubs, we get a lot of support here.
We can use the pitch here for free thanks to the school, but when we improve the equipment here for us, buy new goals, goal nets or training materials, the sponsorship and support is very helpful. Of course, we have a completely different organisational effort in the background than other teams in the men’s football department, to which we officially belong as a division.
But fortunately, we players have never had to pay for travel and accommodation ourselves here in the club, and through sponsorship, I now sometimes get my goalkeeper’s gloves paid for or there’s even a meal for the team on an away weekend.
And of course, the AFM also helps a lot with the grassroots group.
MT: Why don’t you tell us about it in more detail, I’m sure many people don’t know them.
Hippo: Yes, it’s a training group for younger people and beginners who want to get closer to the sport, currently led by Rasmus, Jonas and Wolf. You can take part on Tuesdays and Thoya, for example, has already joined our Bundesliga team from this group.
MT: What is the general situation for young blind footballers in Germany?
Sven: That is a very big problem. Of course, there is good youth work at many of the Blind Football League locations, and there are also opportunities in Bremen and Düsseldorf, for example. But it would be desirable, of course, if it could be integrated more into schools if every visually impaired child could try this sport at least once. Many visually impaired children go to mainstream schools and the sports teacher may never have heard of it and then the child may not participate at all – instead of giving them the opportunity to try out this sport or even to be the person who shows others how to do it.
If we could somehow manage that, it would be a big step forward – but then we would also need more locations, more trainers, a more professional structure. It can’t be done on a voluntary basis, it’s just different from being a parent and committing yourself to the youth team for a year.
MT: Thank you very much for your time and good luck with the new season!
// Maik (translated by Arne)