A soccer coach who lost almost 80 percent of his vision and is legally blind has helped to launch a soccer academy for blind players in Miami.
Marcelo Landau, the Buenos Aires-born coach behind the effort, said the academy will offer free training and play sessions for blind people of all ages.
“I am very excited by this initiative,” Landau told el Nuevo Herald. “For me, this school is important because the kids will have the chance to develop, to connect with other people, feel useful and, through a team sport, feel valued as a group.”
Landau, who directed the city of Doral’s soccer programs for 17 years, said the idea for an academy for the blind arose from a motivational speech he delivered to young people some years back at Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, which helps people with visual disabilities.
“They told me they did not have much physical activity, and I promised them I would try to make a soccer school for the blind a reality,” Landau said. “Then I contacted Susie Castillo, who represents District 5 on the Miami-Dade School Board, to ask if there was any program for physical activities for the blind in the school, and if not, I wanted to know how to identify the blind boys and girls in our community and contact their parents.”
Landau suffered a stroke on the left optical nerve seven years ago, and another on his right eye last April. Doctors at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Hospital, which specializes in ophthalmology, said there was no cure. Accompanied by his son, he traveled to Moscow that summer, as the World Cup was being played in Russia, for a second opinion at Fyodorov Hospital, a well-known ophthalmological treatment center.
“After returning from Russia, I started going to the Miami Lighthouse, where I learned to move with a cane. They asked me to give a motivational speech to young blind people,” he said. “While talking, I realized the kids did not do much physical activity. That’s when I realized that a soccer school for the blind would be a great help for the community.”
With the support of his partner, María Eugenia Quevedo, Landau started working on the school, which he called Warriors. After much work, the school opened on Southwest Eighth Street on the border between Little Havana and Brickell. It now has about 20 students from different parts of Miami-Dade County and plans to expand to Doral, which has more than 100 blind students. District 5 alone has 139 students who are blind or visually challenged.
Emely Bajarano, a 15-year-old on Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province who is visually challenged, is training at the Miami academy. She arrived from Cuba eight years ago and was diagnosed with Wolfram Syndrome, a degeneration of the optical nerve.
“I like to come to play,” Bajarano said after an evening session Wednesday coached by Landau. “That way I pass the time practicing a sport outdoors.”
Another player at the school is Marnel Jean, 18 and a Miami resident.
“I feel terrific playing soccer,” said Jean, who hopes to go to law school. “It’s a lot of fun.” Landau said he was thankful for the support by Kevin Brousard and the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes for supplying the special soccer balls. They have bells inside that orient the players.
Landau also thanked Castillo, whose District 5 covers Doral, Miami Springs, part of Hialeah and Sweetwater. Castillo in turn praised Landau for organizing the soccer academy for the blind.
“It’s wonderful to see someone like Marcelo, who also suffers from difficulties with his vision, turning a misfortune into something so beautiful for our community,” Castillo said. “The sports program for kids with visual disabilities not only addresses the physical needs of all students but also creates a support community for these students and their families.”
Landau also noted the support from Juventus Academy, which has made available its soccer courts in Miami and Doral to the blind players. The fields have synthetic turf and are ringed by metal fencing with wooden boards whose sounds allow the players to orient themselves.
“I have a lot of hope for this initiative because of the support I found,” Landau said. “My wish is that a lot of boys, girls and adults can participate in this program, extend it to all of Florida and in the future extend it to all of the United States.”