Soccer Like You’ve Never Heard it Before
Cardy has been coming to games at Highbury since 1974 and has been a Gunner fan his entire life. Like most dedicated supporters, he can rhyme off most of the great players and great games from Arsenal’s 100-year history. But the 73-year-old Cardy literally hasn’t watched current stars like Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp perform, because Cardy has retinitis pigmentosa and has been blind for many years.
That hasn’t stopped him from following the team he loves. Every home game, Cardy and a few dozen other fans with visual disabilities take their places in the 56 seats set aside for them at Highbury. The seats are provided free of charge to supporters with visual disabilities and their helpers. Guide dogs are also permitted, and everyone is provided with a headset that allows them to pick up special in-house, play-by-play commentary.
“We get much better treated than fans of most other clubs,” Cardy says moments before kickoff. “We get much better commentary now. You could sit at home and the game might be on [the radio], but it’s not the same atmosphere, you see. This place has got the atmosphere and that’s what we love… Some of us shout, some of us get worked up, and sometimes some of us are disappointed.”
The Arsenal scheme isn’t the only one in England, but it may be the best, says Alan Whetherly, Leisure Recreation Coordinator for the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).
“They’ve got it right,” says Whetherly. “Their stewards know how to guide, they’ve got a system set up for people to get tickets. The only problem is trying to get everyone else to work to those standards, and that isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
Whetherly chose Highbury as the locale for the launch of a report, Discovering Sports Venues, earlier this year. The report is a collection of responses to questionnaires sent out to the operators of professional soccer, rugby and cricket grounds in England.
Sixty to seventy per cent of the teams in soccer’s Premier Division have some sort of facilities available for fans with visual disabilities, says Whetherly, but the attitudes of some clubs are poor, to say the least.
“There are one or two London clubs where there have been problems –so much so, guide dog owners can’t even take their guide dogs in,” he says. “Also, there are some clubs that have no plans to get in any visually impaired commentary. That’s in the Premiership and I think that’s appalling.”
Soccer, known as football, is big business in England. Players are paid millions of pounds per season, massive transfer fees are arranged between teams in England and Europe for the rights to top players, the sale of team merchandise brings in bags of money, and stadiums seating upwards of 40,000 people are regularly sold out, despite ticket prices that often exceed $100 Canadian.
“I find it hard to grasp why some of the smaller teams are able to do something and are willing to do something, when some of the bigger clubs won’t,” says Whetherly.
Most English soccer clubs retain very close ties to their respective communities. Arsenal’s stadium is wedged behind rows of terraced houses in the North London neighbourhood of Islington, and Whetherly says the club’s commitment to fans with visual disabilities stems from its commitment to the people of the area.
“They don’t see the club as being just strictly three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon [the traditional starting time of a game]. They see the club as being part of the community and bringing in all parts of the community to the club.”
“It’s a whole different ethos; this ground is to be used and people are to be encouraged to come into it.”
“I think it’s just in the interests of our club that our fans are catered to,” says Amanda Docherty, a press officer with the club.
The club releases 56 seats in its 38,500-seat stadium for supporters with visual disabilities. Each seat normally costs approximately $25 Cdn., meaning the club forgoes about $1,400 Cdn. in revenue per game.
“We’ve got enough financial backing to allow us to do that,” says Docherty.
“It’s really quite incredible,” says supporter Brian Mamby. “At a time when everyone is so profit oriented, a football club can put 30 or 40 seats aside for charity. It’s incredible.”
“I think it’s genuine,” says Richard Greenwood, another Highbury regular with a visual disability. “It’s all in the spirit of being a club that reflects the local community, all aspects of that community.”
Unfortunately, says Whetherly, other clubs in London and the rest of England don’t look at things the same way.
Chelsea F.C. is one of the richest clubs in the country, a team laden with some of the highest-priced soccer talent in Europe. Yet guide dogs are banned from the Stamford Bridge stadium and no commentary is available. The team is actually rebuilding the stadium to house a luxury hotel and other state-of-the-art amenities, but there are no plans for facilities for supporters with visual disabilities.
“I must admit, I’m quite puzzled as to why they can’t do it,” says Whetherly. “I don’t honestly know. It makes you wonder if they can’t see the business sense.”
New legislation may soon force clubs like Chelsea and other offenders, such as Tottenham Hotspurs, to make changes to club policy.
The Disability Discrimination Act, which came into effect in England in May, 1997, may make it illegal to not provide special services for fans with visual disabilities. Whetherly says the government, the RNIB and the Football Association are working together to establish some sort of minimum standards.
Whetherly is also working on compiling a database for sports fans with visual disabilities so a supporter can phone a centralized number and find out exactly what facilities are available at any sports ground in the country.
“We’re working with the British Sports Council and organizations like the F.A. and the Premiership to look at running a series of seminars on providing accessible facilities,” says Whetherly. “We want to recruit a number of visually impaired volunteers to go around and assess facilities and provide some guidelines for grounds.”
“People want to help, even if it’s down to showing people how to guide a visually impaired person properly.”
Fans with visual disabilities have always attended soccer games. Greenwood first came to Highbury as a youngster and stood on the terraces in the then-notorious North Bank, relying on a running commentary from his brothers for details.
Now, Greenwood and his guide dog, York, can sit in comfort and get up-to-the-second details on the action on the “pitch.”
“You have to talk all the time,” says Colin Hunt, one of the Arnsenal commentators. “A lot of television and radio commentary, they always cut to an expert for comment and everything else, but here you have to talk all the time because people who are visually impaired don’t know what’s going on at all. So if the ball’s out of play you have to say it’s out of play, or if somebody’s injured you have to say they’re still injured. If you stop talking, they don’t know what’s going on at all.”
“We don’t think we miss very much,” says Cardy. “People like Bergkamp and [Patrick] Viera and Wright play good football and they really inspire you in your mind… You get the impression of it from your commentator, and you enjoy every minute of it, but you can’t see it — you have to visualize it.”
The fans with visual disabilities at Highbury are a full part of an Arsenal home game. They have their favourite players — Cardy’s vocal support of young French star Viera never wanes throughout the game –and they’re not above blasting the referee when Hunt’s commentary and the boos of their fellow Gunner fans tells them he deserves it. There are even a few choice words from their section of the stadium about the official’s own apparent sight problems.
Then, midway through the opening half, everyone tenses with excitement as Bergkamp charges down the right side of the field, drawing Leicester City defenders to him before releasing a perfect cross across the face of the goal, when venerable captain Tony Adams meets it with his balding head and into the net for a 1-0 Arsenal lead.
The entire stadium, save a small section of Leicester City fans, erupts. Arsenal scores again in the second half to retain its interest in the league championship and Cardy, Greenwood and the rest of the supporters with visual disabilities join fellow Arsenal fans on a happy trip home.
Cardy hands over his headset and packs up his dog’s water bowl as he gets ready to leave, exchanging a few words with his fellow fans as he makes his way to the exit.
“They’ve always been my club,” he says. “Arsenal is one of those teams that don’t quit, they fight until the end… And I’ll keep coming until I can’t come anymore, ’till I’m on a long away game.”
(David White is a freelance writer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently spent several months in England.)