Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Blind Footballer Brings Game to Visually Impaired Iraqis

Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, train at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024. (AFP)
Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, train at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024. (AFP)
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Blind Footballer Brings Game to Visually Impaired Iraqis

Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, train at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024. (AFP)
Members of Iraq's first national football team for the visually impaired, train at a sports club in Baghdad on May 22, 2024. (AFP)

When football fanatic Othman al-Kinani became blind in 2008, the loss of his sight hit him hard, not least because he thought he'd have to hang up his boots for good.

Now aged 51, Kinani described his struggle to rebuild his life. "I even forgot how to walk," he told AFP.

"I had to rely on my hearing for everything," he explained, after losing his sight to glaucoma, itself according to him the result of using incorrect medicines to treat allergies.

What made the situation worse "was being separated from football," the Arabic language teacher added.

But years later Kinani's persistence has led him to set up the country's first national football team for the visually impaired.

"It became my life," Kinani said at a training session in Baghdad as he described how the five-a-side sport -- the format most popular with visually impaired football players -- had reignited his passion.

Kinani returned to ball sports playing goalball, a game designed for disabled athletes, through a local NGO he helped create for the visually impaired in 2016.

But goalball, in which players shoot a ball from a prone position across a court, served only to whet his appetite for a return to football.

The new Iraqi team for the visually impaired -- though unofficial -- was born in 2018. Kinani, from Karbala in central Iraq, shelved all other sports practice to manage the team and secure formal recognition.

He said the process brought him out of his isolation and the sport allowed his "reintegration among friends".

With the help of his daughter, who would write his emails, Kinani gained important support from the International Blind Football Foundation (IBF). In 2022 the Tokyo-based body agreed to send crucial equipment to the Iraqi team.

The official recognition Kinani sought finally came this year and Iraq's 20-member squad is now preparing for a tournament in Morocco later this month.

To attend training in Baghdad, half of the team, which hails from other provinces, travels to the capital three times a week.

Blind football matches consist of two 20-minute halves, played on a 40-meter by 20-meter field.

So partially sighted players don't gain an unfair advantage, all the players wear eye shades so that none can see anything as they follow the sound of the ball, which contains bells.

Only the goalkeepers are allowed to see and guides on the sidelines shout instructions to help the players find the way to the goal.

-'Determination'-

During the training session in Baghdad, as one player came within reach of the goal, a guide urgently called on him to "take three steps and shoot."

But the game came to a sudden halt when a vendor selling water bottles arrived with blaring loudspeakers to promote his wares, leaving players unable to hear the sound of the ball or their guides' instructions.

Though the sport is still in its infancy, the Iraqi Blind Football Federation hopes to expand the sport nationwide through additional teams.

Tarek al-Mulla, the head of the federation, praises the "extraordinary abilities" of the players, despite the "difficulties" they face.

"Dribbling with a ball, mind and muscle coordination, these players distinguish themselves (by doing this) only through hearing," he said.

Ali Abbas, head coach for the national team, said he hoped the squad would keep improving, one game at a time.

"The players are full of determination, which encourages me," he said.

Iraq's Paralympic committee is still waiting for parliamentary approval of the team's funding, which would allow every player to receive a monthly salary of $230.

In the meantime, 10 players will pay for their own travel expenses and accommodation for the upcoming competition in Morocco.

As he took a breather from training in Baghdad, captain, Haidar al-Basir, 36, spoke of his team's commitment to do their best, despite the obstacles.

But he explained that, beyond fear of injury, his greatest concern and his request to authorities is for transport to training.

"I had to remember the route to go from home to the stadium. There is also the lack of adequate transport," he said.

But "we are here to train and to learn, to challenge and overcome obstacles", he added.



Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : US Men's Basketball Team Builds Gig Lead then Holds off Australia for 98-92 win in Olympics Tuneup

Jock Landale scored 20 for Australia, which got 17 from Josh Giddey and 14 from Dyson Daniels, The AP reported. The AP
Jock Landale scored 20 for Australia, which got 17 from Josh Giddey and 14 from Dyson Daniels, The AP reported. The AP
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US Men's Basketball Team Builds Gig Lead then Holds off Australia for 98-92 win in Olympics Tuneup

Jock Landale scored 20 for Australia, which got 17 from Josh Giddey and 14 from Dyson Daniels, The AP reported. The AP
Jock Landale scored 20 for Australia, which got 17 from Josh Giddey and 14 from Dyson Daniels, The AP reported. The AP

There was a lot for the US Olympic team to like on Monday. And a lot not to like.

Anthony Davis scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, Tyrese Haliburton came up with a pair of late 3-pointers that helped stop a freefall by the Americans, and the US beat Australia 98-92 on Monday to improve to 2-0 in its five-game slate of exhibitions leading into the Paris Olympics.

Devin Booker scored 16 for the US, Anthony Edwards scored 14 and three players — LeBron James, Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid — finished with 10 for the Americans, who are playing host to a pair of exhibitions at Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this week. They'll play Serbia there on Wednesday.

Jock Landale scored 20 for Australia, which got 17 from Josh Giddey and 14 from Dyson Daniels, The AP reported.

The US led by 24 midway through the third quarter, yet saw that lead cut to six with 5:05 left after Australia went on a 39-21 run. But Haliburton had the next six points on his 3s, pushing the lead back to 92-80.

Australia cut it to four on two separate occasions, but Booker went 4-for-4 from the line in the final 8 seconds to ensure the US would escape.

“Third quarter, we started turning the ball over," US coach Steve Kerr said. "We gave up a ton of points at the basket. Back cuts, offensive boards and so, the game shifted. It's a good lesson for us. Better to learn that lesson now than later. And this will be a good tape for us to watch. But I give Australia a ton of credit. They were great. They fought. They were really physical. Took it to us in the last quarter and a half and really made it a game.”

Second unit, again Just like in the Canada game, the so-called second unit — Haliburton, Jrue Holiday, Adebayo, Davis and Booker — changed the game.

That was the group on the floor when the Americans took a game that was tied at 19-19 with 3:15 left in the first and turned it into a 39-23 lead — a 20-4 run in a span of just over 5 minutes.

Kerr used that group as his starting five to open the second half. But it’s become a clear trend already: when the US goes to its bench and can replace All-Stars with other All-Stars, it’s just going to be a massive problem for opponents who don’t have anywhere near that same level of depth.

“The strength of our team is our depth and we have to utilize our depth,” Kerr said.

It’s been something the Americans have used to their advantage in the past. Dwyane Wade led the gold-medalist 2008 US Olympic team in points, even though he was sixth in minutes on that team and came off the bench in all eight games.

Turnovers Here’s the big trouble sign right now for the US: turnovers.

FIBA games are shorter than NBA games, 40 minutes instead of 48 minutes. That means there are fewer possessions and makes it even more imperative to not give the ball away.

Which the Americans did. A lot.

After committing 15 turnovers in last week's exhibition win over Canada, the US had 18 giveaways on Monday and Australia used them to fuel the comeback effort — getting 25 points off turnovers in the second half alone.

“Our turnovers, it's all about focus and execution,” Davis said.

Injury watch Kevin Durant missed his second consecutive game because of a calf strain, and with only one practice between games it wouldn’t seem likely that he plays Wednesday against Serbia either.

Derrick White, who arrived in Abu Dhabi over the weekend and got into his first practice with the team on Sunday, also didn’t play. White replaced Kawhi Leonard — who deals with knee issues — on the US roster after the Americans determined last week that it wasn’t in Leonard’s best interest to play this summer.