Being blind or partially-sighted is no longer a barrier to enjoying the visual spectacle of soccer. Many German clubs are now providing a special commentary service at stadiums for spectators with visual impairments.
Special commentary can make the game come alive for blind fans
Can the blind watch soccer? The answer is obviously "no" if one talks about using the eyes, but thanks to a special service in operation in a number of soccer stadiums in Germany and elsewhere, the partially-sighted can enjoy everything a live game has to offer by watching with their ears.
Wolfgang Gommersbach is a commentator at FC Cologne's RheinEnergie stadium. His job is to present the play-by-play action of the second division Bundesliga outfit's home games to his avid listeners.
But Gommersbach's commentary is not destined for the wider airwaves. In fact, the 26-year-old can see his listeners from his place in the stands. His audience is the group of partially-sighted soccer fans wearing headphones who are going crazy for their team just a few tiers ahead of him.
One of these supporters, Markus Simmon, is a long-time fan of the Cologne club. Visually-impaired, Simmon's experience of his team's matches has drastically improved in the last year thanks to the service provided for the club and the descriptive words of Wolfgang Gommersbach.
"This service with the earphones and reporters has been in place since the second half of the 2004 season. "Before that, we would have to sit with a companion in the stadium, feeling the atmosphere but relying on comments from a friend," says Simmon.
A feast of soccer for the ears
Thankfully, things are a lot different now, and with the World Cup on its way to Germany in 2006, blind and partially-sighted fans will be able to enjoy the action in detail in stadiums around the country as more clubs roll out the service.
"Here, from the first minute to the last, you can see the whole game," Simmon enthuses, referring to the 'seeing with the ears' principle the service promotes. "You can hear some of the players, shouts from the field and crowd, the ball being kicked, the spectators and the reporter. You get angry, you get happy, you jump around and you cheer."
Whether it's keeping up to date with all the action on the field or any announcements or changes that appear on the scoreboard, the visually-impaired fans get the full effect and atmosphere of match day tailored to their disability. The specific nature of the service means that commentators are specially trained in their approach and delivery to make the commentary as informative as possible without taking anything for granted.
All the action as it happens via headphones
"In previous radio reports, only a few minutes of the action were reported," says Gommersbach. Also, a lot of the commentary available mixed facts and figures with match action, an approach which partially-sighted spectators found disorientating and led to missed incidents on the field. "In this service, we really present what is happening on the pitch."
The commentary is only one of the services afforded to the blind and visually-impaired. Tickets range from just 5 to 6 euros ($6.40 - $7.60) a game, hot and cold drinks are provided and wet and cold weather gear is also available if needed. Clubs offer around 15 places in their visually-impaired areas, but at the moment it's rare for them to be sold out, such is the lack of publicity for the service. But things could well change as more clubs adopt the technology which has been in Germany for around six years.
Leverkusen lead the way
The BayArena stadium, home to Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen was the first to offer the listening service to its blind fans after seeing it pioneered by Manchester United.
"We first saw the system five or six years ago in England and former club president Kurt Vossen then brought the idea to Bayer Leverkusen," Stephan Rem, head of sports relations at the club explained. "We brought in specialists in the technology and security to work on the visually-impaired compound and the whole thing then moved relatively fast."
Since then, clubs such as Schalke 04, Hamburg SV and VfL Wolfsburg have adopted the system, while Bayer Leverkusen has worked to improving the service. In the future, it is expected that all newly constructed stadiums, like Bayern Munich's new Allianz Arena, will include the system.
A World Cup for everyone
The future looks, and sounds, good for blind spectators. It is entirely possible that the World Cup in 2006 will provide the launch pad for an explosion in partially-sighted spectators attending games, especially if those who visit German stadiums for the tournament get a view of world class soccer -- through the ears, of course.