IBSA World Games can inspire a nation, says England blind football legend
England’s most capped and most decorated blind footballer hopes the IBSA World Games will inspire others to ‘give sport a go’ as it heads to the UK for the first time ever.
Darren Harris has opened up on the transformational impact of sport on his life as the region gets ready to host the world’s largest sporting event for blind and partially sighted athletes between August 18-27.
Sponsored by the RNIB, it is held largely at the University of Birmingham as well as other regional venues such as University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus, which is hosting partially sighted football.
Sport played has played a pivotal role in Darren’s life after he was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma – a rare form of eye cancer – aged just 15 months, with his sight slowly deteriorating until he became completely blind in his 20s.
The 50-year-old admits he was often “in denial” over his sight loss but sought solace from sport, particularly during turbulent years as a teenager as he moved to a new secondary school for blind and partially-sighted students – where he often ended up in fights.
But from picking up records at school for all the wrong reasons, Darren escaped through sport and developed his passion for football, going on to rack up records for the right reasons as England’s most capped and decorated footballer during an illustrious playing career.
“I think there’s a certain parallel between the two. One probably helped me do the other,” said Darren, who went on to captain West Bromwich Albion at club level.
“I really struggled coming from a mainstream school into a special school, both socially as well as losing my sight.
“I was the only black kid in my school. They were all quite posh and I was from Wolverhampton, so it was a real culture clash, I just lashed out, I used to fight.
“I was forever in trouble and racking up records for the wrong reasons – detentions, being sent out of class, being excluded.”
Darren channelled his frustrations at school into his passion for sport, where he was often found playing football or running – sometimes up to five hours of sport a day.
He said: “I enjoyed the social element and because every time I played I felt good, I did more of it. The more I did it, the better I got.”
Darren says his sight loss deteriorated gradually, although it was not something he was consciously aware of.
“I bumped into things more, dropped balls playing sport,” he said.
“In my late 20s I began using a cane, but that was long after I needed one. I was in denial for a while.”
He made his debut for England in 1996 aged 23 and won 10 European and world medals, made 157 appearances, and scored 34 goals – becoming the nation’s most decorated and capped blind footballer.
“I don’t think I was the most talented footballer,” said Darren, “but one of the things I had was being super fit.
“I knew I could outrun most people in a game and when people were starting to fade away, I came into my element. I never got injured too, and that’s basically why I got the record!”
His records with England were despite taking a break from football after switching sports to Judo as a result of the Home Nations – besides England – failing to sanction a Great Britain blind football team at the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004.
“It was a bit of a shock to be honest as the Paras had been my dream,” said Darren, who eventually returned to blind football and represented Great Britain in the Paralympics at London 2012, becoming a dual Paralympian after competing in Judo in Beijing 2008.
Along with the hosts, British Blind Sport, Birmingham City Council, the University of Birmingham and MLS Contracts, Darren is a proactive member of the organising committee for the 2023 IBSA World Games this summer, which will see around 1,250 blind and partially sighted athletes from 70 countries come to Birmingham.
Men’s blind football is one of three qualification tournaments for the 2024 Paralympic Games, and Darren has his fingers crossed for Great Britain’s team.
“There’s a lot at stake, but it’ll be tough,” he said.
“We need a good draw and to play to the best of our ability. We have got a brilliant goalkeeper, Dylan (Malpas), who is the best keeper in the world for me.
“We have got Dan English who is a top player, and a couple of good younger players coming through. I wish them all the best.”
Darren hopes an IBSA World Games on home soil can propel blind and partially sighted sport to new levels, and encourage others to get active.
He said: “Sport changes your mind in such a positive way.
“I know so many people these days who are struggling with life, and I wish they would give sport a go – they don’t necessarily need to be good at it.
“There will always be obstacles in life. Football was the best teacher I ever had; it teaches you how to overcome those obstacles.
“For me the legacy has to be getting people to actually get out of their houses and discover how transformational sport is.”