British captain Dave Clarke thanked global soccer icon David Beckham for spreading the word about blind five-a-side soccer as the sport’s Paralympic tournament kicked off on Friday.
Played in front of a silent crowd to allow players to hear the rattling ball, the opening matches of the eight-team event had spectators on the edge of their seats at the London 2012 Games.
The four outfield players are visually impaired, and wear eye shades to ensure fairness, while goalkeepers may be full or partially sighted. The Futsal-size pitch has a rebound wall, meaning there are no throw-ins, while matches consist of two 25-minute-long halves.
At set pieces, coaches tap the posts so the players know where to aim.
There was no shortage of drama as reigning champions Brazil drew a blank, China got off to a flying start and home side Great Britain held Spain.
In Group A, Britain came from behind in a 1-1 draw with Spain. Antonio Martin Gaitan converted a penalty, but Clarke equalized two minutes later with a superb twisting dribble and finish.
Clarke, 41, taught Beckham how to play the sport and has kept in touch with the former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England star after the pair appeared together in a television advert.
“He’s a genuinely decent bloke who took a real keen interest in our sport and was absolutely genuine with us,” Clarke said. “We’ve had several good-luck messages from him already.”
The player added: “He did a lot for us before and I think that’s fantastic that he brought blind soccer to the world. I had phone calls from Australia, Vietnam, the US, all sorts of people who found out about blind football due to him.”
Clarke had a starring role in the Paralympics opening ceremony, taking the flame after it was carried by zip wire into the Olympic Stadium.
He said the players responded well to the atmosphere, with more than 2,600 fans watching their match.
“None of the guys are used to this and I think the way we’ve reacted to it has been great. We’ve bought into the occasion,” he said. “We spot voices and so to hear my kids, you couldn’t see it behind the shades, but there was a couple of tears rolling down.”
In the other Group A match, Argentina, who won bronze in Beijing, beat Iran 2-0.
In Group B, Brazil, who won both previous tournaments in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, got their title defense off to a flat start with a 0-0 draw against France.
“It was surprising for everyone,” Brazil coach Ramon Pereira de Souza said. “The players showed a lot of anxiety in this match, but I certainly think Brazil will be more aggressive for the rest of the competition.”
China, the silver medalists four years ago, thrashed Turkey 4-0.
“Sometimes the match locks up and nothing happens as it did with Brazil; other times the game rips through and you get 5-0 or 7-0 scores,” Turkey coach Yucel Kaya said.