“Football has given me a lot and taught me a ton of things for my life.”
25 August 2018: The football clubs MTV Stuttgart and FC St. Pauli are fighting it out in the German Championship final. Serdal Çelebi dribbles down the right wing. He takes a left-footed shot and lands the ball in the corner of the net. Goal! In the end though, despite Serdal scoring, FC St. Pauli loses the match 1:2 and fails to bring the cup home.
The bad luck of losing the final is soon overshadowed though by a stroke of good fortune. Serdal is blind and his goal is nominated as the first ever by a blind footballer for the “Goal of the Month”. With 36% of the votes, Serdal beats some seasoned footballers such as Marvin Plattenhardt, Mike Frantz, Kai Druschky and Jonas Meffert. Serdal is awarded the medal for the “Goal of the Month” and later has the honour of drawing the round of 16 for the DFB Cup 2018/19. His goal was even voted third in the “Goal of the Year”.
Two and a half years on from that, we meet up with Serdal at home. His fingers whizz back and forth over his mobile phone as he arranges a meeting with Wolf Schmidt, his coach. The voice support on his phone buzzes so fast that we’re amazed anyone can understand it. Serdal laughs. This is everyday life for him. Business as usual. But as a sighted person, you’re left standing there in awe wondering how someone who can’t see manages to do that.
hvv switch: Serdal, how long have you been blind?
Serdal: I always had problems with my eyes and once I’d turned 13 a detached retina meant that I lost my sight entirely. So my vision got gradually worse and worse and then at some point everything went dark – at night to begin with, and then during the day too.
hvv switch: What things can you still remember as a sighted person?
Serdal: I can still imagine everything in my mind’s eye, but of course I notice that some images fade away with time. For instance, I can still imagine colours and trees that I saw as a young kid. But if someone asks me what a palm tree looks like, for example, I could explain it, but I don't have a proper idea of it because I never got to see one as a child.
hvv switch: Can you still remember the moment you went blind? Were you afraid of going blind or did you manage to come to terms with it better because it happened gradually?
Serdal: It wasn’t easy for me at all because I grew up in Turkey. It was very difficult living there with a handicap. In our village I went to school like any normal kid and was the only one with a visual impairment. I was made fun of for this. I can still remember coming back to our village with a new pair of glasses from the eye specialist and being called “four eyes”. I got into a fight about it and an hour later my brand new glasses were broken.
Those were difficult times for me and later on, in Germany, when my eyesight got even worse, I found it hard because I was so shy. I didn’t really dare to leave the house as I was worried people would stare at me and feel sorry for me. I had really low self-confidence to begin with. But I gradually got my confidence back through my day-to-day experiences living as a blind person. In the end I became brave enough to go out and move around.
Football has given me a lot and taught me a ton of things for my life.
hvv switch: What role does football play in that, or the fact that you’re a dad? And how have these things helped you to overcome your handicap?
Serdal: Blind football has really helped me a lot to be more mobile, to become more confident, move around freely and meet new people. You’re accepted there just as you are and don’t have to change. My son doesn’t really understand that I’m blind yet. Sometimes he asks me to look at him, which I do because otherwise he gets angry. He’s already beginning to notice that I’m impaired though and does things like putting things he wants to give me directly into my hand. When we’re out together, he is always holding my hand and doesn’t leave my side. But when he’s out with my wife he’s much less well-behaved and is always running off. He behaves himself with me because he knows there’s something going on with me. He just doesn’t really understand exactly what it is yet.
hvv switch: What exactly have you learned from football?
Serdal: I’ve learnt to be more self-confident, meet new people and to increase the radius I move around in without being afraid.
hvv switch: When did you first get into blind football?
Serdal: I first heard about blind football in Nuremberg in 2009 and started playing that same year. I’ve been playing ever since.
hvv switch: When did you join FC St. Pauli and how did you meet Wolf?
Serdal: My very first training session in Hamburg was at St. Pauli and I’ve never played anywhere else. I don’t remember exactly where I met Wolf. It was either in the stadium or on the training pitch. There was another coach when I first started at St. Pauli, and Wolf joined later on.
hvv switch: Can you describe what football gives you, away from the pitch, in terms of freedom?
Serdal: Football has given me more self-confidence and courage. It’s shown me that although I have a handicap I can do anything without being afraid. We are all just the way we are. Football has also given me a sense of freedom because we can move around on the pitch without any aids. Whereas out on the street and in my everyday life, I need my cane and other aids. But on the pitch all I need is the ball and then off I go.
hvv switch: Is there anything you can pass on to a sighted person from your experiences?
Serdal: In my job as a physiotherapist, I sometimes treat patients with psychological stress. When they see that I’m blind, they’re often really surprised and it motivates them to take control of their lives.
Seeing that I’m blind, other people realise I’ve achieved something despite this hurdle and it helps them understand they can do things themselves too. The fact that I play football always amazes my patients too.
hvv switch: Can you talk about your job in a bit more detail?
Serdal: I’ve been a physiotherapist since 2008, so for 13 years. At the moment I work in a practice in Hamburg where I take care of patients with orthopaedic, surgical and neurological problems. I really enjoy my job because I think I’m good at connecting with my patients. My blindness doesn’t come into this.
In my entire career I’ve only had two or three patients who had a problem with it and switched to another physiotherapist. Other than that, it’s not a problem. I enjoy helping people and working with them. It’s a great feeling to treat someone with pain and see them leave the practice with a smile on their face afterwards.
hvv switch: What was these patients’ problem with you?
Serdal: One of the patients didn’t have any experience with blind people and thought I wouldn’t be able to treat him. I offered but he felt he couldn’t trust me. But that wasn’t an issue for me. We sometimes have patients who don’t even want to place their trust in my sighted colleagues. That’s also quite normal. Not every patient gets along with every therapist, and it’s standard practice to switch around as the chemistry has to be right. That’s important because the treatments take 20-30 minutes and we’re talking about all kinds of things during the session, so if we don’t get on with each other it doesn’t really make sense. It also happens the other way around and I don’t really like a patient and then don't feel like doing the treatment. If the chemistry between the patient and the therapist is right though, the treatment can lead to success more quickly.
What matters is living life as a community! Regardless of whether you have a handicap, come from a different country or have other cultural differences.
hvv switch: Social acceptance of people with disabilities has changed over recent decades. How could the world still be improved in your eyes?
Serdal: I also think that social acceptance towards people with disabilities has increased because people have more experience of it nowadays. In the past, people with a handicap were often very much alone. But now there are more activities and opportunities available for people to connect with one another. Efforts to improve accessibility for people with disabilities have also increased. But it is annoying to think that so much time had to pass by for this to happen.
I have a handicap and I’m blind, but I still have to pluck up the courage to take that step outside the house and I can’t always expect everyone else to accept me the way I am. In my job or in my day-to-day life I also have to present myself. Generally speaking, people are very helpful, but we still have to learn to not be so afraid to approach one another and to not always just be thinking of ourselves. The way of life in Germany is a little bit anti-social. Lots of people think too selfishly and the sense of community has been forgotten. I think that’s really sad.
Further Links (in German)
"Sportspeople are grateful when they receive a good standard of training and I got so much great feedback from it."
Wolf has been officially commentating for FC St. Pauli’s matches for visually impaired people since 2004. He’s also the coach of the FC St Pauli blind football team. That originally came about because the blind footballers in the stadium heard how much Wolf was raving about his side job as coach of a girls’ team at SC Sternschanze and asked him if he wanted to help out as coach at a tournament in Cologne. He only intended to do this once. But since September 2009 he’s been a permanent and extremely successful trainer! In 2017, the team were the German champions.
We meet Wolf at the Millerntor Stadium where he’s preparing for a training session with Serdal. Here, too, Wolf is fully focused on the job at hand. You can really sense his enthusiasm for football in general and for blind football in particular.
hvv switch: How did your first encounters with blind people come about?
Wolf: My first contact with blind people was in 1998 in the Millerntor Stadium, on the back straight. I was there with my group of mates and we were all already quite drunk, which gives me a kind of tunnel vision of the pitch myself and makes me even more interested in the football. There was a blind person in front of me on this occasion, with an armband and a Matthias Scherz jersey, just like me. My lads weren’t following the game very closely and I thought to myself that the blind man didn’t know anything that was going on in the game. So I started telling him what was happening on the pitch so that my drunken friends and Joachim [the blind person] could follow what was happening on the pitch. Joachim can’t turn away after all, which bothered me a bit. So, with my tunnel vision, I updated him on what was happening on the pitch for 15 to 20 minutes. The friend with Joachim thought that was great and encouraged me to keep going because it meant Joachim could follow the match and the tension more closely. Something my lads weren’t necessarily interested in.
hvv switch: How did Joachim respond to that?
Wolf: Joachim isn’t someone who actively approaches people. But I could see he was kind of excited, feeling the tension. He got more into the game as he was able to perceive the intensity of the match in a different way to just listening to how the other spectators next to him were reacting. The experience was more direct and emotional for him, especially when he’s stood next to people like my lads who have their backs to the pitch and aren’t responding to the game at all.
hvv switch: So the reason you commentated for Joachim in fact had more to do with your friends than Joachim?
Wolf: No, well it was both of those things. The boys turn away, while I’m really interested in following the game. Then someone like Joachim has no option to turn away. He has no option to watch the game and should be allowed to follow what’s happening. At the same time, the boys should also be able to follow what’s happening on the pitch so they realise what they’re missing out on. It was a bit of an angry response on my part I guess, trying to get a point across to them.
Then I started thinking this could be a general thing, as I’d seen someone waving a blind flag in the stands. If the blind people in the stadium all got together, it would be possible to offer a running commentary at low cost, with microphones and headphones for these fans. I submitted this proposal to the association, but didn’t get a reply to begin with. Then, in 2003, the club contacted me because they wanted to set up so-called listening stations in the stadium. In 2004, St. Pauli was one of the first six football clubs in Germany to offer spaces like this for listening to the matches.
hvv switch: Were you surprised that St. Pauli didn’t accept your proposal straight away, since the club is very socially minded in other ways?
Wolf: St. Pauli is known as a socially minded club with a family feel, which can have both positive and negative sides to it. In a family, for instance, there is often envy and resentment. St. Pauli isn’t known for its professional competence either. As a former film student though, I knew it was possible to set up listening spaces like this using simple technology. My worry then was that the club, in the third league club at the time, would pointlessly invest in expensive technology, even though this could be financed on just a small budget. When I approached the person in charge of buying, he told me the club already had a cost estimate for the technology. He then asked me to propose a cheap, medium-priced and really expensive solution. In the end, we decided on the medium-priced option and have now been offering these listening stations for the past 17 years.
hvv switch: What exactly is the technology?
Wolf: It involves just radio microphones, like those used in fitness classes by the instructor, and headphone receivers for the visually impaired. At some point I switched to using a microphone I could hold in my hand, so I needed someone to write down the statistics for me during the matches as I couldn’t do everything at the same time. As a result of this, we kept discussing referee decisions, for instance, and we realised that it was more interesting with two commentators. And that’s been the standard set-up ever since.
The technology has been gradually refined and upgraded over the years, but the commentary is still via radio microphones and headphones. From this year on though, it should be possible to listen to the commentary anywhere in the stadium via VHF frequencies using a radio receiver like a mobile phone.
hvv switch: What was the reaction of the blind fans in the stadium to the new listening stations on offer?
Wolf: In the old Millerntor Stadium, the seats for the blind were originally intended for the TV scouts. But they were unused as the scouts preferred other seats. The blind fans were all together in one place there and were able to ask questions, as we were all sat very close to each other and linked up together. Now the seats are more spread out and the commentator sits separately, so the contact with the blind fans isn’t as close as it was back then.
Their reactions were great and it meant they could get more emotionally involved in the matches. As a reporter, you can convey emotions with your facial expressions, even without speaking. The tone or colour of speech is an indicator in itself of what’s happening on the pitch. You can bring about a joint experience. Blind people trust this emotionality in your voice. It places a responsibility on the reporter as you’re acting as a translator. So being natural, authentic and emotional are very important for the job. Something that probably rubbed off on me, “Obelix-style”.
I’ve been doing it like that from the very first match and I’m very fascinated by it. It’s a service for the blind. But it also gives people who aren’t in the stadium a great deal to be able to follow the game in this way. The worst thing is that you can never manage with what you say to really reproduce what happened well in the short time available. But this approach to something that’s impossible is just a bit of fun and that’s something I love about it. Maybe it’s the same in blind football too. It’s approaching something that is in fact impossible.
Blind people sense whether you’re really emotionally present as a reporter or just acting out the emotions.
hvv switch: What’s been the impact of your work with the blind in terms of solidarity and understanding for blind people?
Wolf: I think it’s very important to not be pitying when it comes to blindness, and not to be scared of meeting blind people. It offers me a different reality where I get to see and question myself differently. Another positive side effect is that, a year after the listening stations were set up, we also starting broadcasting the commentary on online radio, meaning club members could listen in too. Other clubs have since imitated this idea.
The best feedback comes from listeners who have got no idea about football. We once received an e-mail from a researcher in Antarctica who told us that, as a St. Pauli fan in her research station, she felt like she was right there in the stands when she listened to the commentary. Feedback like that touches me the most.
A positive impact is being made in multi-various ways, as people recognize boundaries but are also in a position to shift them. Not everything is grey and if I know there’s a certain boundary between me and others, I can move it a little, make it more permeable, or soften the hermetic nature of that boundary. You have to recognize that there’s a boundary there in the first place and find out how far it goes and how you get around it. This is also part of the actual playing of blind football, and of commentating blind football.
hvv switch: You create images in blind people’s minds in your work. You give them a space to be free inside.
Wolf: The fun factor is also very important. I remember a moment with the former St. Pauli player Hauke Brückner, who stumbled during a game and wasn’t able to reach the ball. He stood on his knees and tried to head the ball, which reminded me of a seal and so I said “He’s acting out the seal here”. The blind fans told me afterwards that this phrase had stuck in their minds. They thought it was great to hear such a visual term in a football match. I don’t know if they could have imagined what I was saying, but it was a concept that resonated.
Commentating for the blind also creates a momentum of freedom. You too have to be free to dare to do something and use language. When I understand the function of language and dare to then say something, it becomes good, authentic and free. This freedom is then also transferred to the crowd.
hvv switch: You make it possible for blind people to access a world they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Wolf: In the past, a blind person went to the stadium with somebody accompanying them, and that person would tell them what was happening. The blind often know more than the person accompanying them. It’s difficult to ask specific questions about what’s happening and still experience the game in real time. You must understand football, be able to commentate and broadcast live, and be able to classify and qualify what is happening at the same time. You can lose the big picture, for example for tactical line-ups, in the process.
The whole need for linguistic mapping is an exciting field and a complex, dynamic process. Language only has a few pixels of information density. If I wanted to describe an HD image with 3 million pixels, I would need many minutes for this fraction of a second. In a football match, there are 3 million pixels every second, so there are thousands of possible approaches to what might be important. This filtering out, searching, looking and then commentating at the same time is an exciting thing.
hvv switch: You also create a communal experience for the blind with your commentary. They are no longer dependent on different commentaries from the people accompanying them and can therefore better talk to each other about a game among themselves.
Wolf: A test of good commentating for the blind is when, for instance, a blind person can join in the discussion with their colleagues at work about supposed wrong decisions made by the referee. The blind person should be able to access all the information about a match in the same way as other people who’ve either watched it on television or read about it in the newspaper. That’s the standard to aim for.
If in the stadium a murmur goes through the crowd when a goal is scored and you, as a reporter, can describe exactly at that moment how the ball just very slightly missed the goal, then a blind person can relate to this emotional live experience just like a sighted person. The synchronicity of the audience’s reaction and the simultaneous commentating is on an equal footing. That’s where the appeal is and the feedback is good when you manage to do this.
There are also different preferences among listeners for different reporters whose individuality and expertise are at odds with one another. That’s nice because there has to be individual freedom in any field of work and freedom of speech is crucial.
Language and listening mean something very different for the blind than for people who can see, hear and speak. By hearing the atmosphere in the stadium and the language I use, the blind ‘see’ the game. This means that talking and speech are more important for them than for me.
hvv switch: Blind people have a smaller field of perception than sighted people. In your role as a reporter, do you also see yourself as a mediator between blind and sighted people, when you bring about communal experiences with visual bridges?
Wolf: The need for blind people to have good language and information – their only sources of information and levels of perception – is something I sometimes don’t even think about, or even neglect as I’m giving a running commentary. On television there’s an audio description, which is what I do at live sporting events when I narrate what I see. The essence of doing this is to communicate what you see in a moment and the difficulty in doing that is to describe the obvious things. I have to communicate those things that are self-evident and not the small details. For example, I have to say that Nuremberg has the ball in the back right and it’s important to say where that’s happening because back right they’re not going to be scoring a goal. Front right or front centre, on the other hand, other things can potentially happen. Being able to translate these obvious things that we see without any trouble is one of the very tricky things when commentating for the blind. It’s important to give necessary and simple aspects priority over the rest in the very small timeframe available. So it’s bridge-building at the same time, because good commentating for the blind makes, in my opinion, the best reporting for radio too. If I know what’s happening on the pitch, I can follow the game as if I were watching it with my own eyes.
Good feedback for me is when people say they experienced the match ‘visually’ before their eyes.
In our training courses for blind commentating, the listeners and colleagues are asked to draw the scene they are being told about. At the end, if everyone has drawn a similar picture, that’s great. If the drawings differ from one another, important information was missing – usually the simple stuff.
hvv switch: If you translate this from football to our society at large, what could society learn from your work?
Wolf: What I do with commentating for the blind can be applied very well to society as a whole. For example, if someone is describing what they see in a picture they do it through language. Language has an overall context and if we become aware of these contexts when we use language that’s an incredible added value that we can learn. Language is what plays a huge role in blind football. It brings about freedom, because it is through language that I can let them know about the boundaries and sidelines, giving them the scope for freedom. If a blind player trusts me to communicate this information to them about how large their field of movement is through language, I am doing a good job as a coach because my player trusts me, is aware of those boundaries and can move within them.
In other situations moving around freely can be very dangerous for blind people as they can’t see obstacles in their way and might trip. This comes in more than the commentating for the blind as there is more active movement. In blind commentating, on the other hand, it is more of a sharing and joint experience of a football match, hopefully reproduced by other experts.
In certain match reports, how a particular game is perceived can sometime differ significantly, for example, when it is hard-fought in midfield. I don’t think of it as a bad game, even if there aren’t any spectacular scenes or goals. Although that’s nice, of course. But the question is always what is good, because everything’s relative. Approaching something impossible that involves an overall social understanding or system helps to create synergies.
Synergies are created by looking at boundaries together and trying to expand them.
hvv switch: Did working with the visually impaired teach you that, or perhaps you learnt it from blind people themselves?
Wolf: I find it very easy to understand that blind people can’t watch a football match and it is good if they can hear it. It’s great for me that I get to do this. It becomes interesting when you learn something new about yourself in the process. As a coach, I have come to realise through my many years of contact with Serdal and other footballers that I always start off with my standards too high. It’s often the case that I start off with a new idea because, as a creative coach, I come up with new things in every training session. I know from some of my players that they just want to do the same thing over and over again; have a pattern and be assured in one particular thing. As a coach, I always like to push the limits and blind sportspeople are even less keen to leave their comfort zone than others. But for coaches it’s important to get them out of this zone where things get uncomfortable. It challenges them and there’s a real training effect. It took me a long time to accept that.
Learning to operate in comfort and with a pleasant set-up is something we learn together. As a trainer I have to realise that it is not always good training 80% effectively. It’s good working effectively but to train in comfort to a large extent as well.
Perhaps anyone can teach you this, so I hesitate to say that you can only learn this from the blind. Someone born blind has never seen a football match. But I can see where open spaces are and how football has developed over the decades. How it was played in the past and how it is played nowadays. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen blind football grow and develop, and to begin with in the Bundesliga it was played in such a way that all the players were piled together – the way football was probably played 150 years ago. I believe strongly in every player handling the ball, passing it and using the space. But a blind player doesn’t like passing as receiving a pass is difficult and the ball can easily get lost. So it’s easier to pass the ball from foot to foot. Serdal is a top dribbler and likes to keep the ball on his feet.
We’re constantly learning from one another when it comes to different perceptions of the same thing. It’s something where there will always be differences and discrepancies. But we can gain a greater understanding of one another and that’s what the learning process is all about. Shared experiences come about. That’s fascinating and for that reason I’m really grateful that such a niche like “expert for the blind and football” exists.
Blind football is a very small niche and yet it has everything that in some way is life-enriching, leads to new insights and fosters understanding. It’s all in there and it’s what makes it so fascinating.
hvv switch: How did you go from being a blind football reporter and commentator to being a blind football coach?
Wolf: I started off as a reporter for the blind at St. Pauli in 2004, which meant I had close contact with the blind and visually impaired at the old Millerntor stadium. I also have a daughter who was keen to start playing football back in 2006. She wanted to play on a girls’ team so we went along to Sternschanze for training, where there were 30 girls and a coach a little out of his depth. The coach asked me if I’d help him train the new girls and that’s how I first got into coaching.
Since I didn’t start playing football until I was 25, I wasn’t very good. When I became a coach, that was the time I really learned how to play football and how to teach football. In Hamburg, I had to receive official training to be a children’s coach and it was absolutely brilliant. It’s great because you learn how to teach in a way that caters specifically to children. Kids want to play and not take things too seriously. They want to play football differently, with one ball for every kid, having lots of fun, things like that. I was always really enthusiastic telling the blind people in the listening stations in the stadium how great this coaching is, and what you can learn there, and what I’d managed to apply on the pitch.
The blind football team was founded in 2006 and in 2009 there was a tournament in Cologne where the coach at the time had to drop out. So I was asked if I could step in as coach. I agreed, but said that I wouldn’t be able to continue after the tournament as I had too many other voluntary activities going on and also had to earn a living. But coaching the blind and coaching the kids at the same time was so much fun that I decided I wanted to continue.
Sportspeople are grateful when they receive a good standard of training and I got so much great feedback from it, which made it so enjoyable. I decided I’d like to continue with some kind of allowance for expenses. Things have evolved over the years and I would say that we’re now quite professional, as one big team. We can now grow, pass on knowledge and reflect on what we’ve achieved together. It feels great to be a part of a successful sporting and social endeavour like this.