'Seeing' Soccer The Gift of Sight for Blind Football Fans

There was a time when blind soccer fans had to rely completely on their imaginations when experiencing a game. Not any longer. Augsburg launched a special service for the blind this year, joining several other teams in Germany's top league.

SPIEGEL ONLINE

By Christopher Cottrell in Augsburg, Germany


For years, Anna-Maria Adelmann had vicariously experienced soccer through her husband Peter. Even after 27 years of marriage, he would still come home eager to relive every last detail from practice or a game. But by the time their home team, FC Augsburg, won promotion in 2011 to the Bundesliga -- the top tier of soccer in Germany -- for the first time in its history, the Adelmanns' collective passion had become bittersweet. Anna-Maria knew she would never be able to fully experience a game at their local stadium. Her blindness simply wouldn't let her.

Five years ago, Anna-Maria lost nearly all of her vision. Today she can only see a maximum of two meters in front of her. Usually opting to listen to soccer games on the radio, she gets envious when her husband goes to see Augsburg play a home match.

"Great," she tells him. "You're out having a good time -- I'd be happier not knowing!"

So it was with considerable excitement that Anna-Maria caught wind of a new service for Augsburg's blind fans. Seeing-impaired supporters could sit in specially designated seats close to the field, and would be provided with headphones and a receiver to listen in as two commentators described in detail what was happening on the pitch.

'All I Could Think About was the Game'

Last Sunday, match day finally arrived; Anna-Maria and her husband sat in a corner of the new stadium along with nine other seeing-impaired fans. Donning a red and green scarf emblazoned with the FC Augsburg logo, Anna-Maria yelled encouragements when her team was attacking, cringed when the opposition, Hannover 96, nearly forced the ball past Augsburg's keeper and cheerfully clapped along with chants from the home fans' section.

"Ever since I got the tickets in the mail, all I could think about was the game," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

FC Augsburg's service for its blind fans means it now matches up to most other Bundesliga clubs, says Jörn Seinsch, son of the team's president, Walther Seinsch. Berlin club Hertha BSC, for example, has reserved dozens of seats per game for its seeing-impaired fans since it launched its service in 2005. Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich likewise began offering specialized commentary for blind stadium-goers in 2005. Reigning Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund offers seats for 20 visually impaired fans at their stadium.

And now FC Augsburg, which plays at the 30,660-seat SGL Arena, can accommodate up to 10 seeing-impaired soccer enthusiasts, with Seinsch and his team of commentators giving fans like Anna-Maria the chance to experience a soccer game first hand.

"I can barely put into words how much this means to me," Anna-Maria said. "It makes me feel normal again."

Equally grateful is Robert Maurer from the nearby town of Neusäss. The 48-year-old is the only completely blind fan with a season ticket, and although he still used to come to games even before the club offered their service for the seeing-impaired, he said it makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable. "Radio commentators don't come close to what these guys do," he said.

Commentating for the Blind is No Easy Task

Adequately describing a soccer game so that blind people can picture what is going on is no easy task -- and definitely not a job for the soft-spoken, according to one of the commentators. "We're talking the entire time. It really takes a toll on your voice -- after all, we're talking for 45 minutes in one sitting," said Benjamin Schwarzenberger.

"We commentate the game from a very different perspective," Schwarzenberger added. "You have to realize that what could happen isn't as important as where the ball is exactly and what is happening right now."

Before games, the two commentators working that day head down the concrete stairs leading from their bird's eye perch in the press box to greet the seeing-impaired fans seated down below. Handing out a receiver and a pair of headphones to each fan, Schwarzenberger and his colleague Elmar Mair introduce themselves and explain to newcomers what to expect.

When his turn to talk rolled around during Sunday's game, Schwarzenberger, 21, hurriedly described the scene on the pitch, rattling off names and a precise description of the play at breakneck speed. In the second half, for instance, one of the Augsburg players began to furiously gesture at someone else a few meters away. "He's angry at his teammate because they weren't paying attention," Schwarzenberger said into the small microphone attached to his headset, later recalling that such details usually go unmentioned by commentators on TV because anyone watching the game can see for themselves what has just happened.

"The feedback is overwhelmingly positive," Mair said after asking his listeners what he could do better. "They said they've never experienced anything like it before."

Without a trace of disappointment after a goalless draw, Anna-Maria Adelmann was still beaming from having been to her first live soccer match in years as her husband escorted her to the tandem bicycle they had taken to the game.

Was it worth it? "We'll definitely be doing this again!" she called over her shoulder.

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