If you were to describe to a Brazilian football fan the scene of Cafu lifting the FIFA World Cup™ trophy in 2002, would you mention that his shirt was yellow? Or that he had his medal on, but showing the backside? Probably not. One tends to take details like these for granted when recounting an image that every football lover has seen numerous times. Except not every one of them has.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2010 an estimated six million Brazilians were either blind or partially-sighted. And, given that football is such an important part of Brazilian culture, it’s safe to assume that the majority of them are fond of the beautiful game. Now many of these fans will have the chance to enjoy the experience of attending a football match as never before, thanks to the implementation of a dedicated audio-descriptive commentary service for blind and partially-sighted fans.

FIFA launched this pioneer initiative at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, but its involvement and support has gone way beyond the competition’s final whistle. Non-governmental organisations Urece - Esporte e Cultura para Cegos and the Centre for Access to Football in Europe partnered with FIFA to coordinate the operation of the match commentary service in four World Cup stadiums – Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Following the success of the initiative at the global showpiece, FIFA donated the radio transmission equipment to Urece and signed an agreement to fund the NGO to transform this pioneering project into a regular feature at Brazilian stadiums. The first concrete step in that direction will be taken in October, when all national league games at the Maracana, in Rio de Janeiro, will offer the audio-descriptive commentary service.

“This is the kind of result we aim for when we talk about leaving a lasting legacy in a country that hosts a FIFA competition,” said FIFA’s Head of Sustainability Federico Addiechi. “What could have been seen simply as a feature to add value to the FIFA World Cup experience was instead developed into a service that will affect the lives of many football fans every week. On top of that, there’s the human legacy of helping communications professionals develop a specific set of skills for working with partially-sighted and blind fans.”

Think visual

It turns out that radio broadcasters are as used to calling plays as they are to assuming that their audience are fully-sighted. Over the last few weeks, Urece has been training a group of professionals to do the specific kind of match commentary that provides visually disabled fans with precise depictions and explanations that can change the perception of someone who is not seeing – and maybe has never seen – the action itself. The difference with a regular radio broadcast may seem subtle at first, but proper audio-descriptive commentary can mean a completely enhanced experience for those who attend a match and tune in their devices to the service’s frequency.

“That’s why the first part of our training is based on images that every Brazilian football fan knows by heart, like that one of Cafu lifting the trophy,” explained Mauana Simas, the project coordinator from Urece. “Our eyes and minds are addicted to the same pattern and you have to deconstruct these habits to understand what makes sense to a visually disabled listener. Following this online exercise, we take a blindfolded tour of the stadium, with one commentator describing what it sees to the other, and finally we have live tests, during a game. Eventually, the commentators can put themselves in the blind listener’s shoes.”

The whole process has been overseen by people like Urece’s president Anderson Dias - a Paralympic 5-a-side football champion in Athens 2004 and world champion in 2000 - and will result in the certification of approximately a dozen commentators who will work at the Maracana.

“Everything is quite new, including the fact of commentating on local club football, and not on international football as was the case during the World Cup,” said Simas. “This will probably require an extra degree of excitement, while still being very visual and precise with descriptions. It’s a pilot project that hopefully we’ll be able to take to other stadiums in Brazil soon. But the simple fact that we are turning this into part of the day to day at the Maracana, is more than we would have ever imagined. A lot of football fans will be very, very grateful.”

From FIFA.com

A version of this article is also available in Portuguese, French, German and Spanish.

Published 30/09/2015