It’s not uncommon for international footballers to begin their sporting journeys amidst humble surroundings. A million miles away from the great, cacophonous cathedrals that host their games, these soon-to-be heroes frequently take their first tentative steps across pockmarked fields where jumpers are needed for goalposts, residential streets lined with dent-fearing cars, and grassless gardens that make close ball control a non-negotiable. For Azeem Amir, however, his unique journey to becoming an international footballer began in a bowling alley.
“My football mates in particular take the mick out of me so much for being a ten-pin bowler, but that’s where it all started: with ten-pin bowling. I still remember being six or seven years old and going down to the local bowling alley, Strike Ten. I used to play for a team and that was really my first sense of playing sport,” Azeem tells NPLH. Having been born blind, it took some time for Azeem to find a sport that he could access. He found ten-pin bowling to be one of the most easily adaptable. “You have someone describe where the pins are, you feel where the edge of the lane is, you throw the ball down and then someone may say: ‘Right, Azeem, you’ve got two in the left-hand corner’ so you slightly adjust your angle and you try to figure out, based on the distance, how you can hit them. That’s it. It’s do-able. That’s where I started.”
In his local area of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, Azeem wasn’t aware of many other blind people. “I didn’t play football because there was nowhere for me to play and I didn’t even know football was a sport that blind people could play until I was 15. Ten-pin bowling gave me that sense of being part of a team, part of a club, being responsible for getting a good score; it gave me something to look forward to. I’d pay my subs, I’d get my kit. I remember saving up 20p every week to be able to put into the slot machine to be able to spin it around and get some sweets out. You know, it was little things like that that I loved.”
Over time, Azeem bored of, as he puts it, “just throwing a ball down an alley.” With a quickly growing level of confidence and an increasing hunger for sport, he decided to leave bowling behind and turn his attention to blind cricket. “I started playing blind cricket around 12, 13 years old, and that’s where I started to find my independence. I would get on a bus by myself, get on a tram by myself. Thinking back now, looking back on it, I don’t know how my dad actually let me do it. I’m not sure he knew how I was getting places! He’d be like: ‘Alright, as long as the coach is with you, you’ll be alright.’ But, actually, sometimes the coach wasn’t with me and I’d be getting the train by myself. There was me, getting a train into Manchester, followed by a tram to get to cricket training on a Saturday morning. I’d do all that on my own. I’d learn the routes, I’d learn all the timings. It was only nine years ago but, back then, there was no digital stuff, so I’d have to go into the local bus station to get a timetable and learn what time the buses would arrive and depart and I’d have to memorise it all.”
In order to be able to play, to feel included, to experience the buzz of competitive sport, these were just some of the daily challenges Azeem would overcome; challenges enough for any young person free from impairment. But, much like bowling, the allure of cricket soon wore off. “It was great but, honestly, I just used to hate standing in the field. If I got out in the first over that’d be me done for the day, so I’d just have to stand out in the field.” Luckily for Azeem, another sport came to his attention.
“I discovered blind football when I was 15, at a ‘Have A Go Day’ event for disabled sports. It was my first time putting a blindfold on and actually going from a little bit of light perception in my left eye to having no sight at all and solely relying upon my ears. I took to it quite well.” In the beginning, it may have seemed as though Azeem wasn’t quite cut out for blind football. “I didn’t even have a pair of football boots; I used to just rock up in my trainers and a pair of football socks. My legs were so small that my football socks would literally come up to my thighs. And shinpads; I didn’t even have any shinpads. I’d be like: ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve got my shinpads on’ but really I didn’t because the only ones I could wear were, like, double the size of my legs. I was that skinny.”
Regardless of these slightly awkward initiations, though, there was a palpable sense of fate around Azeem’s growing affection for football. “When I was a baby, my dad would bring me these little light-up footballs. Because I couldn’t see, I’d use my legs and my arms to feel what was around me, so when I felt this ball I’d pick it up with my feet first. I’d bring it up to my chest and my hands with my feet and my grandma says: ‘Ever since then, I knew that you’d be a footballer!’ and I’m like: ‘No, you didn’t, Grandma! You didn’t know that!” Azeem can’t help but laugh as he recalls.
After dipping his toe into the world of blind football, Azeem was told by his parents to make a choice between that and cricket. “They told me: ‘Right, son. You can’t be in two places at once on a Saturday morning, so which one are you going to pick?’ I decided that I’d had a taste of cricket, I knew what it was like, and I wanted to take things to the next level, so I decided to give cricket up and play football. I look back at that decision and think that, you know what, that changed my life; that one decision. Choosing football changed my life.”
Before long, Azeem’s details had been passed onto a club in Liverpool, who formed part of the National Blind Football League, and his journey began to pick up pace. “I started training with them and, in the beginning, I was really just getting used to the physicality of the game; the tackling, the rules, how to play matches.
For those unaware, blind football matches most closely resemble futsal. As Azeem describes it, “Blind football is a five-a-side sport, with four outfield players and one fully-sighted goalkeeper. The four outfield players on each team wear blindfolds, to ensure nobody can see anything and everybody is equal. The ball has ball-bearings in the panels which, when shaken, make a sound. It’s a futsal ball that is made to be slightly heavier, because in the air you can’t hear it but on the ground you can. Up the sides of the pitch there are boards that come up to around hip-height. They keep the ball in play but they also help the players to hear the ball, because the pitch of the ball’s sound will change depending on how close you get to the board. So, if I’m dribbling the ball towards the board, because the echo will change, I’ll know that I’m getting closer to the side of the pitch and I’ll be able to hear that my footsteps are changing pitch.”
“You need to listen for the echoes, but you also know that your goalkeeper behind you is going to be talking to you, your coach is on the half-way line giving you instructions, and you’ve got a guide behind the goal that you’re shooting towards, so you’re going to be dribbling towards that guide, and he’ll direct you as if to say: ‘Okay, dribble left, cut in and finish at my voice.’ When you’re playing, you have to manipulate yourself and the ball around the players saying ‘voy’ - which means ‘I go’ in Spanish - and the defenders will say that so you know where they are and you don’t smash into them. There’s a lot of things to concentrate on. Oh, there’s also a multi-ball system, so if the ball goes out suddenly there’s another one on and the goalkeeper has launched it down the pitch and it’s your responsibility to sprint back into position and play on.”
In his early days, Azeem experienced a pretty steep learning curve in order to master blind football, particularly in comparison to the blind sports he’d devoted himself to thus far. The physicality of the game, especially, represented a huge departure from what he had become accustomed to. “The blind football league is open age, so I was playing against, like, 30-year-old men who’d played the game for 10 years and who were Paralympians and I was just there thinking: ‘Okay, I just need to make sure I can walk in a straight line with my blindfold on.’ I’m playing against these people who are full-time footballers and I was so out of my depth. I remember one time getting so disorientated on the pitch that I ended up behind the goalkeeper, off the pitch. It was crazy!”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rough sport but it is a contact sport, so you’d pick up knocks and bruises. My dad would be like: ‘Yeah, make sure you’ve got your protection on, Azeem, you’re off down the UFC tonight.’ It was so physical, especially for me, being 16, 17, and still developing. I remember the lads, when I used to wear my pads, they’d take the mick out of me because my pads looked like skateboarding pads; my arms were skinny and my shinpads would be hanging off me and they’d be like: ‘Hey, look, Tony Hawk’s joined us!’ But the lads always supported me, they were really good for me. I think to play blind football you have to be a certain kind of personality and I was one of those. I got used to the contact, got used to the game, the quickness, the rules, and I also loved being in the changing room, the vibe. The community is so good, you know. I loved everything about it. Driving back after a game and being in the back of the car, falling asleep on my jacket because I’m so shattered from the game; coming back knackered after a game, stopping at the motorway services on the way home and my coach having to wake me up and being like: ‘Oi, Azeem, let’s go get some food!’ because I’m half asleep. Any day I’m playing football is a good day.”
After learning the ropes, Azeem soon became one of Merseyside Blind FC’s key players and, from there, earned a deserved call-up to his national team. “I got scouted by some England coaches who’d come down to watch us, and they enrolled me in the Emerging Talent programme. It was then I was introduced to the importance of conditioning and the technical aspect of the game and learning about international competitions and, you know, if I really put my heart into it, what I could achieve.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and Azeem found himself flying out to Japan to earn his first cap for the England Blind Football team. “Since then I’ve attended two World Games and one European Championship, where we’ve won two silvers and a bronze. That’s not too bad but I want a gold. I need a gold now because I’m sick and tired of finishing second or third. That makes me even more hungry. You know, as much media work as I get, as many adverts as I’m able to be a part of, it’s nothing without me doing well on the pitch, so that drives me on, to train everyday. Since I played my first game for England, in 2018, that’s when it really started to kick in for me: I need to put that hard work in and I’ve been training every day since.”
Given the impending tournaments that await the England Blind Football team, Azeem may yet have the opportunity to achieve everything he dreams of achieving on a football pitch. “We’ve got a good cycle coming up: next year we’ve got a World Grand Prix in Japan, for the World Games, then in 2022 is the European Championships where, if we win, we get an automatic spot at the Paralympics in Paris in 2024. In 2023, in Birmingham, we have another chance to qualify for the Paralympics and I’d love to say that I’m a Paralympian. My aim is to finish my masters this year then go full-time with my football, so that I can be one of the main players at the World Championships in England in 2023. I don’t want to be on the bench for the home games, you know? It’s a home tournament. I want to be out on the pitch every minute, to score the goals, for my family to see me and recognise all my hard work and to see me do well.”
It it vital to note that Azeem’s lofty ambitions don’t begin and end with football. As evidenced by his becoming the youngest blind person ever to complete the famous Tough Mudder endurance event in 2016, and his acclaimed TEDx Talk in Brighton in 2019, Azeem remains passionately devoted to raising awareness and dispelling misconceptions around disability through his work and his motivational speaking. “I think, for me, the lesson I want people to take away is to never judge someone before getting to know them. A lot of people prejudge people. For instance, some people could see me walking through an airport and think: ‘Aww, bless him. Poor guy can’t see. He must have such a poor quality of life, everybody must have to do everything for him!’ But, actually, I’m on my way to get on a plane to Argentina for three weeks to play football and be paid to do it, you know?”
“That’s why I’ve just started my own business, called Learn With ESS - the ESS stands for education, sport and speaking. The aim of that is to tackle disability awareness and do it in a way that isn’t blatantly labelled as disability awareness. We’ll have people in classrooms learning about braille, how it works; what guide dogs are; what learning difficulties are and how can we help to make those people’s lives easier. After the education part, workshops in classrooms, they go into the sports hall, where they’ll have a go at some Paralympic sports. They’ll try goalball, they’ll try blind football and wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby so, when they have that blindfold on or when they’re in that wheelchair, they can appreciate what it’s like to have a disability.”
“Doing this in the mainstream, with people who work in education or people who work in corporate, they can see first-hand what it’s like. And I’ll say to them: ‘Okay, at the end of your session you can take your blindfold off. But for somebody who’s blind, that’s on all the time. They’re not taking that blindfold off.’ I think that helps them to appreciate it more. Finally, the speaking element involves a motivational speaker from their field of work or from their local community, who will be able to speak to them about their own story, and hopefully that will give educational institutions - from primary schools all the way up to universities and further - and corporate organisations a chance to use this as a fun activity day, an inset day or a learning experience or team-building, that will also hopefully prove to be an experience that’ll last a lifetime.”
Azeem hasn’t once cursed his disability or bemoaned what he can’t do. On the contrary, he’s conscientiously formed his life and his work around what he can do, continually redefining his supposed limitations, and has committed himself to actioning positive societal change to benefit people of all abilities. “People are very cautious and don’t want to talk about disability in case somebody gets offended but, actually, if it becomes so common that people look past that disability then, you know what, it’s worth it. That’s why I do my motivational speaking. Let’s break down those barriers now, so that in five year’s time, ten year’s time, everybody knows how to act around somebody with a visual impairment, everybody knows how to approach somebody who’s deaf, everybody knows how to work with somebody who has a learning difficulty. They may not be able to see or hear but look at what they can do.”
“The next level for me is making people see me not as Azeem who’s blind but Azeem who plays for his country. But it happens in stages, you know. I’m lucky that working for Nike, now, and playing for England, being put on their social media, the more those things happen and the more firsts people experience the better. And that is a first for them, seeing a blind player involved, you know. Reading the comments on those things, you do get trolls, you do get hate, because people are like: ‘Why is he there?’ but it’s just because they’ve never seen it before, and I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them for being shocked at wondering why a blind footballer is there, because it’s never been done before. But for us to move forward it needs to be done often enough that it isn’t a surprise. It starts with one person and I hope I can be that person who paves the way for us in the future.”
Watch Azeem in action here.
"I have known Azeem for around 4 years through his involvement with England and The FA.
Not only is he an exceptional player on the pitch but he is a great role model to all young players within the sport from professional level to grassroots. He's now an England international and is working within schools / community / role model programmes showcasing inspirational and motivational talks to a vast variety of audiences. These include Azeems personal story which is very heart touching and motivating in the way he has overcome many barriers. From TEDTalks to local schools I would highly recommend Azeem."
"I have been working with Azeem over the past few years and have first-hand seen his rise within the public and motivational speaking industry. From speaking at local primary schools to watching him on the television talking around topics such as disability, football and education. He is able to portray his story to encompass so many different angles. An Incredibly inspiring young man who I would recommend and will leave a long-lasting impact on all listeners."– Amanda Jane Holt PGCE BA(open) NNEB ADG FE/HE
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