Photography by Tomoki Imai | Text by Satoshi Taguchi

The Japan Team and Blind Football: A Discussion Between Two Stars
What the Team Can Do Now to Prepare for the World Stage
Imagine—you stand on the artificial turf of the football field, an eye mask obscuring your vision. You listen in, hard, and hear sounds all around you. The goalkeeper's voice from behind. The coach yelling from the sidelines, a team mate—known as a guide—calling out from the front of the field. The football ball, which contains metal granules, making hollow-sounding noises as it rolls on the ground. And when you start dribbling, the sound of the people on the opposing team yelling “voy!” as they come to take the ball away from you.
Blind football is a sport governed by sound. Players hone their sense of hearing, take their positions, make passes, and shoot goals. The Japan national team's immediate goal is to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. A difficult feat, perhaps, considering they are currently ranked 9th in the world (as of February 2019). Nevertheless, they are working towards greater heights, in a way distinct to Japan. And not only that—they have Ryo Kawamura, the star and captain of the team, known for his precise spatial awareness and the surefire skill and speed with which he approaches his offense.
His childhood idol was Masashi Nakayama of “Gon Goals” fame, he too a star on the Japan national football team. All this makes this conversation between the two of them—two people who have made decisions at the highest level of their sport, and who have held their own on the world stage—truly special.
Visualizing the Field Through Sound Alone
You two have played each other before, right?
Masashi Nakayama (hereafter “Nakayama”): Yes, about three years ago. I was given an opportunity to play blind football, and that was when I met Mr. Kawamura for the first time. I mean, it was intense. I just thought, “what a hardcore sport.” I only played for a little while, but it really tired me out [laughs]. Right away I would lose track of where I was, and not be able to regain my positioning. I couldn't even tell if I was moving forward, so actually playing football was out of the realm of possibility.
Ryo Kawamura (hereafter “Kawamura”): Spatial awareness is really important in this sport. Sound is all the information you have—the sound of the ball, your teammates' voices. You listen to these sounds, visualize what's happening on the field, stay aware of it, and make decisions as you go along. I'm sure able-bodied football players visualize what's happening based on what they see—it's just that we get our information from a different source. I personally think they're pretty much the same in terms of visualizing what's gonna happen and driving that into various plays.
The field is always there in your head.
Kawamura: I agree. I'm always visualizing what's happening on the field during a game, and formulating plays from there.
How long does it take to develop this kind of spatial awareness?
Kawamura: I think it takes a really long time, and it comes slowly. I started playing blind football in 2007, but it's only been in the past few years that I've realized how important it is for the sport. Blind football is still fairly new here as well, since it really only came into Japan in 2001, and there isn't a lot of research on what senses you're using when you play. But when I do try to put into words the senses I use, it does really come down to spatial awareness. A lot of the other players will say it's “visualization,” but I think it's more than that. It's not like you hear a sound and can immediately visualize what's happening—it's more like you sense the space around you, and draw a picture of what's happening in that space in your head. So I think in the sense that you're processing all kinds of information in your head and making decisions as you play, it's not all that different from regular football. If you get down to it.
Do sighted people also need good spatial awareness when they play football? I would assume so—for instance when you receive a pass with your back to the goal, and have to shoot the ball as you're turning around.
Nakayama: There are plays like that, yes, but I think generally we're able to grasp what's happening from our understanding of the stadium and from our peripheral vision. It's less like we're drawing a picture in our heads, and more that we just rely on our vision directly. I think spatial awareness is actually the most important for us when we do headings. We have to figure out which direction the ball is going, how fast it's going, and jump at the perfect moment for our particular physical abilities and skills. I think players who can't make headings maybe lack this awareness of the space around them.
It's interesting, because you made so many header goals in your career. Was the spatial awareness in blind football just a completely different beast?
Nakayama: Yes. Turns out I was only able to play because of the visual information I had. Blind football is incredibly difficult. It's hard even to pass the ball to someone that's right in front of you! Yes, the ball makes these kind of metallic noises, but it's almost impossible to figure out where it is, not without a lot of training.
Does it feel like your mind gets tired?
Nakayama: Yes. I mean, you've played blind football for a long time, but it still tires you out, right?
Kawamura: It requires so much concentration. I'll play one important game in an international tournament or something, and my mind will be the first thing to feel the fatigue.
Mr. Kawamura, you were chosen to be part of the Japan national team in 2013, and have since gone against some of the best teams in the world. Have you felt any difference in skill with regards to spatial awareness?
Kawamura: The top two teams in the world—Brazil and Argentina—are on a different level in that sense. For example, they're really quick to figure out where their opponents are on the field. They'll be dribbling and change directions at the perfect times, and they know how to keep the ball away from the other team as they bring it across the field. I think part of it is just how deeply engrained football is in those cultures. They've had a lot more experience with it, and their shots are incredibly accurate—always at the corners of the goal.
Nakayama: It's amazing, the skill it takes to make those shots. And you're right, Brazil does have the kind of culture that generates these kinds of players. Japan needs to learn from that, but it's also important to figure out where to place the ball before you even make those shots. What we need to do in Japan is just keep unraveling these techniques.
Kawamura: You're right. It's so important where you put the ball before you make the shot. The Brazilian players are so good at it, and at bringing the ball where it needs to be as well.
Nakayama: And they're so fast! One second they're there and the next second you've lost them. All of this we have to work on, one at a time. But last summer when the team went abroad, you guys actually tied with both Brazil and Argentina, 0-0. Just getting even one point in this situation, bringing it to a 1-1 battle, will open up the realm of possibility—it'll give you the chance to win.
Kawamura: Yes, it'd be different to have a tie game where we really battled it out. And actually, after those games, in November, Argentina came to Japan and we were able to score our first point against them—though we did end up losing the game.
Nakayama: You're right. The venue was absolutely packed. I remember thinking it was such a huge step forward for blind football in Japan.
Instigating Change to Do Battle with the World
It seems very important to go out and go face-to-face against world-class teams, especially as you work towards your goal of winning a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Kawamura: Yes, very. Sometimes when you go against the best teams in the world, it can feel like they're trampling all over your daily training, all the work you've put in. So we're forced to elevate our standards, and it just fundamentally changes our day-to-day training.
Mr. Nakayama, you felt this at the World Cup in 1998.
Nakayama: I felt this in our first game against Argentina. The tactics before the game even started, their physicality. It felt like they were playing a game before the game even started, like they weren't engaging with us the way we thought they should. It hadn't occurred to me that football could be played so differently. Compared to that, the games in the J League and the Asia preliminaries felt very “clean.” They would come right up against us, and put so much more pressure on us than we were used to. I mean, distance-wise it's only a difference of one or two steps, but it makes such a difference.
Did these kinds of experiences have a significant impact on your career?
Nakayama: I don't know. But I knew I had to put my all into it, that it wouldn't matter that I'd faced the world if it didn't give me any direction for the future. I knew I had to face myself. You can't think, “Well, I could've won too if I'd played that way.” The problem was that the world didn't let me play that way. I knew it would come down to how well I understood that, how well I could learn from it. There's no point in looking for excuses. It was about how well I could face up to the fact that I wasn't prepared.
Mr. Kawamura, aren't you going through this process now?
Kawamura: Yes. I'm always aware of the way I think of myself and my sport. I just think it's so important to have the courage to make a change.
Nakayama: The courage to make a change?
Kawamura: I think human beings in general want to stay where it's familiar, where it's comfortable. But if you wanna get better, you need to make changes and try to be a better version of yourself. This is stressful, and there are times when things don't go well and you end up failing. It comes down to how well you can accept these kinds of struggles, stay calm, and keep moving forward. I think this kind of courage, this kind of determination, is so important. To achieve your goals, you have to keep changing, both as an individual and as a team. I believe that all this leads to growth.
Nakayama: I agree, especially for teams. If you can't win doing what you've been doing, there has to be a change.
Kawamura: Yes. And if you want to change the team, you have to change yourself first.
Nakayama: You're the star of the team and the captain. It's a tough position to be in, but if you lead the way, you can bring change to the whole team. Oh, I actually read in a newspaper article that you work on your spatial awareness in your everyday life.
Kawamura: It's not like I'm doing it for the sole purpose of the sport [laughs]. Even now, as we're talking, I'm trying to face the direction your voice is coming from. This kind of thing actually ties into when I'm playing football.
Is this related to the change you were talking about earlier?
Kawamura: It's not related in the literal sense. But there's a lot that's asked of me in terms of the strategy of the team—scoring goals, sure, but also things like building up the passes towards a goal, not to mention my responsibility as captain. In that sense, I want to train everything that I can in my daily life.
Nakayama: You're so determined—no wonder you're captain!
Is your strategy as a team changing at all?
Kawamura: Yes, there's more of a focus on offense. It comes down to how often we can get the ball near the opponent's goal—the part that's closest to the enemy goal if you divide the field into three parts—and how many more goal opportunities we have. This has become the team's basic mindset. And in that framework, we'll adapt to each team's play style, be creative with our passes, and expand our repertoire. We're also focusing on increasing our accuracy in all this.
Nakayama: Until now, you'd been focusing on dribbling in your offense. Has shifting to a more pass-based offense been more effective for you as a team? There's a higher chance that your teammates will be open if you make some big passes, although obviously skill-wise this is difficult to do—what with ball control, positioning, accuracy.
Kawamura: Yes. Until now I'd sort of just kick in the direction their voice was coming from, kind of guessing at where they were. But now we're aware of everything down to which foot we'll pass it to. It's all so we can get as close to the goal as possible.
You're saying these passes will be the catalyst to the Japan team's success.
Kawamura: Until now, blind football had been a sport all about dribbling and shooting. This was true all over the world, even in Brazil and Argentina, and even China. But think about it—it's faster to make a pass than it is to dribble the ball the same distance. And it's just hard as Japanese people to try to beat other teams through individual skill alone, since there's an obvious difference in physicality. That's why we have to focus on offense that relies more on the team, on the group. We're at a stage right now where we're going for this new kind of challenge.
The physicality issue is something that's also seen in football for sighted people.
Nakayama: Yes. Even when we receive a pass in front of the goal with our back to a member of the opposing team, it can be hard to keep the ball. Of course it's important to have the power and the speed to get that done, but I think there's also an appeal to making passes—messing with their heads, and dodging them instead of engaging them directly.
Kawamura: I mean, in terms of physicality, if we run head-on into someone, for instance a European player, there's no winning—they're just bigger than us. That's why we're working as a team to practice parrying and dodging kind of techniques. Things we can do to evade their power, or use it in our favor and change directions, for instance. Bodily control, in other words, and we're training it with our fitness coach. We've been working on it a lot these past two years, and we're seeing a lot of improvement. Instead of trying to go up against them in one-on-one contact, we dodge and maneuver. It also helps us save energy and is an easier way to play, which means we can run longer distances, put in more hard work.
Mr. Nakayama, you've also had to play in situations where there were differences in size.
Nakayama: I didn't think this deeply about it [laughs]. I personally wasn't the type of person who liked to keep the ball. Even when I'd get the ball near the middle of the court, it'd be one, two maneuvers before I'd pass it to someone else. Of course it's best if you could defend yourself, keep the ball on you. It'd be nice if I could make plays like [Yuya] Osako, but I didn't have the body or skills for that. The battle for me would be in front of the goal. There, it didn't matter if some big person came to get that ball—I'd think, “you're not gonna stop me!” I knew I had to win through sheer determination. That was one area I knew I couldn't lose.
I remember when you played against Croatia in 1998—the players were really big.
Nakayama: They were. But we'd also seen in our analysis of them that they weren't as good at moving away from their opponents, and moving away from the ball. We knew we could get somewhere if we focused on doing that, and just maneuvering around their strengths. There are times when being larger can be a disadvantage. Of course, they're better at close quarters, and headings too for that matter. But at the same time we could just maneuver ourselves so none of them would be free, and we knew that if we got better at picking up loose balls, that we'd stand a chance.
Kawamura: Wow, that's really interesting.
The Importance of Verbalizing Intuition
Going back to the basics a little—how do you make sure the team has the same strategies, when you can't communicate them through images or video?
Nakayama: It's easier when you can tell someone “oh, remember when this happened?” and watch a video of it. It sounds really difficult to have to discuss your image of what happened and formulate strategies through words alone.
Kawamura: Yes, and what makes it even more difficult is that everyone has different backgrounds. There are people that were born with a visual impairment, and others who became visually impaired at a certain point in their life. People who have never actually seen football before can take longer to understand what we're saying, for instance.
Nakayama: You weren't born with a visual impairment, but I guess for the people that were, it has to start with explaining what football even is.
Kawamura: Sometimes it's even more basic, like explaining the actual movement of running, although this is an extreme example.
Nakayama: It must take a lot of time and effort to overcome these kinds of things and learn to play football, one step at a time.
Kawamura: Actually, the people that are born with it are very, very sensitive to sound, and have really good spatial awareness as well. In that sense, as long as they can get to a point where they can understand the strategy in the game, they have the potential to become really amazing players. But to do this, we all have to have the communication skills and the words to explain what we want to happen.
You need to have the skills to verbalize the kind of intuition that's necessary.
Kawamura: The field for us is a world of intuition. But we do need to be able to verbalize it to figure out what we want to do next, what we'll need to do to win. Putting this into words is really important work for us.
Nakayama: As someone personally in a position where I communicate things to people, I completely agree. Communicating what you understand through intuition in words, in a way that's as easy to understand as possible. This is something that really impacts the players' growth as well. It's so important and I feel like I have a lot to learn in that respect. Maybe you've gotten better at verbalizing your thoughts because you've hit all kinds of obstacles in your plays and have thought about how to overcome them on your own. It's something that really comes down to your day-to-day attitude towards the sport.
Kawamura: You're right. That's something I try to be aware of.
I heard that your friend from elementary school told you, “I don't remember you being so good at football.” Did you really get a lot better, and does it relate to this ability you have to verbalize your intuition?
Kawamura: When I was a kid, I could see, even if my eyesight was poor. But honestly, I was awful at football. I must've seemed like the last person in the world who would be the central member of a blind football team. I didn't think I would be that myself. When my friends see my plays now, I can see them thinking, “What, really?” [laughs]. I don't know if this is relevant to me getting better at verbalizing, but I do think it's necessary to develop better communication skills in general as you work to get better at football.
Nakayama: You're right. Like when you go to a kids' football class, how do you describe a good heading? I could say something like, “Make sure to keep your neck close to your body,” but would I be able to describe what that actually feels like? In words that aren't just “Bam!” [laughs]. I think if I were able to explain this to these kids in a way that made sense to them, that feel that I described would help me build up my own skills as well. An up-and-coming player in blind football is [Kaito] Niwa. He's only played futsal for a little while, and he's already been invited to the national team. If he keeps just getting better and better, the team might soon have two stars in their midst.
Kawamura: You're right. And we could probably try for a more strategic offense.
Nakayama: As captain, you have to help build him up as well.
Kawamura: Yes, because it's important that the team as a whole gets stronger. I try to tell him everything I can so that that can happen.
Nakayama: But do you ever get nervous that if he gets too good, that he'll maybe usurp your position on the throne? I mean, when I was in Júbilo Iwata, I of course gave advice—like “oh, you should do this,” “you should do that”—and I did say the things I needed to say for the team to win, but on the other hand there were definitely things I could've said that I didn't.
The Júbilo Iwata golden age.
Nakayama: I didn't say anything to [Naohiro] Takahara [laughs]. Nothing. And he wasn't the type to ask me questions either. He had better skills than me—his ability to cover distance in the beginning, his ball control, ball placement, and even the accuracy of his shots. But I remember at one point I started doing shooting practice with the coach, just five shots after practice, and out of nowhere Takahara started doing the same thing. I remember thinking that if he got better at that, then there'd be nothing that set me apart from him anymore [laughs]. I think it's important for there to be really determined players that come in to try to “steal” your tricks, or try really hard to learn from you. And obviously when you start competing against each other, you both improve.
Kawamura: In that sense, Niwa is a very determined player. He asks a lot of questions.
And you give him all the answers.
Kawamura: For now [laughs]. I'm basing it off of my own experience and my own intuition, but I try to communicate it in a way that suits him.
Nakayama: So much work! Leading the team, teaching the junior players…
Kawamura: I do have a lot of roles. But I personally just want to make goals. I think the best way for me to drive the team to victory is to make a goal myself. So I do still want to hone that kind of decision-making ability.
Nakayama: Of course—that's so important. You are the star of your team. When the star makes a goal, the team really comes together. I'm sure at the Paralympics that it'll make everyone watching come together, get all fired up. I'm looking forward to it!


Born in 1989 in Osaka City. Member of Avanzare Tsukuba. When he was five years old, his vision declined due to uveitis. Played football in elementary school, and track & field in middle and high school. Began playing blind football after entering the Tsukuba University of Technology. Was selected for the Japan national team in 2013, the same year he was diagnosed with blindness, and immediately scored a goal against Brazil. Has served as captain of the Japan national team since 2016.


Born in 1967 in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Went to Fujieda Higashi High School and the University of Tsukuba before becoming a member of Yamaha Motor (currently Júbilo Iwata) in 1990. Considered one of Japan's best strikers, having made a total of 157 goals, scored hat-tricks 4 games in a row, and more in the J1 League. Was the first Japanese person to score a goal at the World Cup. Currently a member of Azul Claro Numazu in the J3 League. Now also works as a football commentator.