Soccer coach visits Clemson on fact-finding mission to build blind soccer program in Egypt
CLEMSON, South Carolina — Ali Abou El Nasr has spent his career thus far championing blind soccer and sports for other marginalized groups in Egypt through his own sports management company, Cardinal Sports. When the U.S. Department of State recently tapped Ali to participate in its Global Sports Mentoring Program, he jumped at the chance to study the successful launch of adaptive sports programs at Clemson University.
Representatives from the U.S. Department of State paired Ali with Skye Arthur-Banning, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, because of Arthur-Banning’s role in the establishment of a soccer residency program at Clemson and his work with the Department of Veterans to grow soccer with disabled veterans. Ali will take all the help he can get and he looks forward to the rest of his first three-week visit to the U.S.
“The level of team loyalty in the Clemson area is amazing; nothing in Egypt touches the overall structure and equal emphasis on education and sports development,” Ali said. “I hope to learn all I can so that I can return home and empower the disabled community.”
Blind soccer is designed for players who are blind or visually impaired. The game ball is modified to jingle or rattle, while guides and players are required to rely much more on vocal communication, as all players regardless of their degree of impairment are required to wear blindfolds. It is currently a Paralympic sport complete with organized world championships and international games.
While blind soccer is supported and extremely popular in the United Kingdom where Ali lived after college, the same can’t be said of the U.S. or Egypt. Ali notes the latter’s own Ministry for Inclusion doesn’t even feature a wheelchair ramp, so growing a sport like blind soccer is understandably a from-the-ground-up proposition.
Ali has spent the last few years attempting to build the foundation for blind soccer in his native Egypt, and he has had to sidestep or overcome numerous hurdles for the sport, from bureaucracy to fraudulent businessmen posing as its supporters. However, Ali believes that once people see the sport in action they’re easily won over and inspired, so his primary goals in the mentoring program are learning how to gain and maintain support for a sport and reach the largest audience possible.
“I know I will learn a great deal from Skye and the rest of the faculty here,” Ali said, “but I’ve already learned so much from the other mentors in the program, and the simple fact that our efforts are now recognized by respected agencies in the U.S. will do a great deal for us and our efforts.”
Ali and Arthur-Banning certainly have that level of recognition in common. In addition to his work with Paralympic athlete-coaches and his work building the Clemson’s soccer residency program for athletes with cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury, Arthur-Banning recently finished a think tank focused on the building of five-a-side soccer in the U.S. for smaller, adaptive sport teams. Arthur-Banning sees Ali’s visit as a two-way exchange on topics they have in common.
“We are extremely lucky to be selected by the U.S. Department of State as a mentor site and to host someone of Ali’s caliber,” Arthur-Banning said. “We recognize the intent is for Ali to learn from us, but we certainly will learn from his experiences and successes in Egypt.”
Ali hopes to work with Arthur-Banning to plan social media awareness campaigns and events that would see able-bodied athletes and soccer stars trying blind soccer. He believes that if his own players were to take on the “cream of the crop” on an even playing field, the experience would legitimize their sport and make them feel elite on a different level.
Ali puts equal effort into training to win and training to improve his players’ self-esteem. He said all of them have to endure some level of ridicule when people on the street see a person with visual impairments in soccer gear heading to practice, but he is heartened by how quickly his players can shrug off these comments and gain confidence in spite of them.
“It doesn’t take long for them to realize the people that ridicule them aren’t getting to represent their country with pride the way these players get to,” Ali said. “It’s great to see them walk into practice with their heads held high.”
Ali will be in the Clemson area meeting with various faculty members and attending sporting events until he departs for Washington, D.C., on April 8.