On a sweltering day in eastern China a squad of footballers wearing blindfolds hurtles after a ringing ball, occasionally clattering painfully into each other.
But Jiangsu province’s blind football team hardly care — even when they break the odd bone — because the sport is a rewarding break from the massage parlours, where many of China’s visually impaired population are employed.Chen Shanyong, the star player and almost completely blind since birth, co-owns a massage business adorned on the outside with a picture of him wearing a gold medal.
Team-mate Chen Kaihua, a powerful forward who had his eyes extracted as a toddler due to an illness, also has his own massage shop.
In fact, all the Jiangsu players are in the massage trade, or in training to be.
“We’re limited to the massage parlour and have little contact with the outside world,” says Shanyong, 31, as he kneads the back of a client at his two-floor business in the city of Nantong.
That makes football, and an upcoming tournament of blind teams from around China, so vital, giving the players added self-worth, a sense of camaraderie and an escape from their routines in the massage parlours.
“They’re not able to move freely because of their impairment and there are few chances for them to see the world,” said the team’s fatherly coach, Cheng Xuefeng, before overseeing an intense training session.There are at least 17 million visually impaired people among China’s 1.4 billion population, according to the latest available figures from the state Disabled Persons’ Federation.
Like in many other countries, blind or partially sighted people in China are severely restricted in the jobs available to them and often feel alienated.
“I couldn’t go to normal school when I was young. I was introverted and lonely,” said Chen, who won football silver at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics.