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Ryo Kawamura x Yoshu Nobusawa: Facing Their First Paralympic Games (Part I)

Football 5-a-side and goalball come together in this dialogue between two members of the Japan national team. Ryo Kawamura, captain of the Japan national football 5-a-side team, and Yoshu Nobusawa, a member of the Japan national men’s goalball team and oldest confirmed member to represent Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, engage in a rousing online discussion that transcends the boundaries of both sports. Tokyo 2020, postponed a year due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the (long-awaited) first time Japan will compete in a Paralympic Games in either sport. They talk about what they love about their sports and their teams, as well as the feelings and motivations they have towards this most special of stages.

Ryo Kawamura (31 years old)
Captain of the Japan national football 5-a-side team since 2016, and main offensive player

Yoshu Nobusawa (34 years old)
Emotional center of the Japan men’s national goalball team, who served as captain of the team until February 2020

――Football 5-a-side and goalball are both sports for people with visual impairments. What do you find the most interesting about each other’s sports?

Yoshu Nobusawa (hereafter “Nobusawa”): You play both sports with blindfolds on. But I heard for football 5-a-side, the top players can listen to the sounds and voices on the court to figure out almost exactly where they’re standing on the pitch, and which direction they’re facing. So I do think football 5-a-side refines your spatial awareness and information processing skills, more so than goalball.

Ryo Kawamura (hereafter “Kawamura”): That’s really perceptive, and an amazing insight. [Unlike goalball, which is played indoors] we play outdoors, so we’re more affected by changes in the environment, like if it’s raining, or if there’s wind blowing. There are a lot of different variables. Depending on the venue, sounds can echo differently, and even the ball can sound different, and the length of the grass can make it easier or harder to dribble or pass the ball. So to play well you really have to be flexible and be able to adapt to different circumstances.

Kawamura has been training for more variety in his “shooting off the dribble” plays (Photo: 2019 IBSA Blind Football World Grand Prix) photo by X-1

Nobusawa: We play in gymnasiums, so we don’t really experience huge differences in the way things sound depending on the environment. But even in goalball, we do have to sense people’s “presence,” if you will—what actions the other team is taking, where the ball hit our opponent. I feel like that sort of intuition is something we use in both of our sports.

Kawamura: You’re right. Players who can’t see use more than voices or the sound of the ball to maintain awareness. For instance, in football 5-a-side, you can figure out whether someone’s made a push pass or a toe kick, or whether they’ve kicked with their right or left leg, not just by the sound it makes, but also by imagining the movement and course of the ball. I’d imagine it’s the same with goalball—that you use other indications, and not just the sounds of people’s feet, to figure out which way your opponent went when they moved to block the ball. I think both sports cultivate this ability to sense these very subtle things.

Nobusawa: You can tell whether they kicked with their right or left leg? That’s really amazing.
I think in goalball, when the ball hits an opponent, you generally just have to be able to differentiate between three types of sounds: the ball hitting their palm, the ball hitting their leg, and the ball hitting their stomach.

Kawamura: I guess the ball might give off a different sound depending on which it is. But it must be helpful to have advance knowledge about what the opponent is doing too. Could you figure out, for example, if your opponent threw the ball with their right or left arm?

Nobusawa: I think with advance information we could probably tell. But I don’t think we could tell whether someone is right-or left-handed just by throwing the ball back and forth.

Kawamura: I see. I’ve tried goalball but I’ve never played for real, so it’d be nice to be able to play a real game one day. Although, I don’t think I’d be able to catch or throw the ball [laughs].

Nobusawa: I mean, I could never put on an eye mask and run around—I’d be too scared [laughs].

Nobusawa is known for his ultra-precise offense (Photo: 2019 Goalball Japan Men’s Open)
photo by Haruo Wanibe

――You two are both leaders in your respective teams. How would you describe your teams as they are now, heading towards the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games?

Kawamura: I think a lot of people on the team are very good at adapting to all kinds of different circumstances, even now that things are more irregular than usual. We have a striker—the “star of Japanese football 5-a-side”—who’s won points on world stages, and we have players who watch the flow of the game and move between offense and defense to keep the team together. We have a Brazilian player who’s now a Japanese citizen, and he has this fighting spirit that Japanese people don’t really have, and uses his physicality to really prove himself on the pitch.

We have players in their teens, but most are in their 40s, so the average age is fairly high. Of course, this is a sport where your performance is pretty much based on your level of experience—and this is true pretty much throughout the world—meaning younger doesn’t always mean stronger, but still…

Nobusawa: Of the 11 Japan designated training athletes in goalball, there are only two of us who are in our 30s. There are a lot of younger players who have come up through the ranks, and who have qualified for the Japan national team by pushing out the members who previously competed in international tournaments. There are players on the team who are really at the peak of their development as athletes, which is good for us, because I think that momentum is part of what makes the team strong. And I think as a team, we’ll be able to stay optimistic as we head towards Tokyo 2020.

You said there were a lot of long-time players in football 5-a-side. I think having really experienced players can help ground the team during critical moments, and help them get back the rationality they need if they—in all their momentum—head off in the wrong direction. I think in that sense, my role and the role of the other older members of the team, is to watch the overall balance of the team and calm the younger players down when we have to.

*This article will continue in “Ryo Kawamura x Yoshu Nobusawa : Facing Their First Paralympic Games (Part II)”

text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by Parasapo

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