Goalball in captivating mode at University of Cambridge Sports Centre
Cambridge Dons among elite teams in Goalfix Cup
Silence spoke volumes at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre.
“Quiet please” and “play” were the most used words as the venue played host to the culmination of the elite goalball season, with eight teams in town to contest the Goalfix Cup.
Goalball is for athletes with visual impairments and involves players attempting to roll or throw a basketball-sized ball with bells inside into their opponents’ goal.
The ball must make contact with certain areas of the court and, once it has passed these points, defenders will attempt to block the ball with their bodies. It is played by two teams of three on a standard volleyball court, with goals nine metres wide.
It was coincidental that most of the sport’s elite players were on show in Cambridge at the end of a week when 11 sports issued a joint manifesto calling on UK Sport to reform the way it distributes cash.
Britain’s men’s and women’s goalball teams have been without UK Sport funding since 2014, with the men having lost theirs following a group stage exit at the London Paralympics and the women after an eighth-place finish at the 2013 European A Championships condemned them to relegation.
They have been reliant on individual fundraising, private sponsorship and Sport England money to grow the game and compete, and compared to their more illustrious rivals for funding, goalball estimated that it would need £70,000 for this year.
But again it missed out on funding from UK Sport for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics cycle.
Those points are particularly pertinent in Cambridge as the area has provided four high profile players to the national team in the last few years.
Filmon Eyassu, Sarah Leiter and Anna Tipton are part of Cambridge Dons and have broken into the national squads recently, while Georgie Bullen was part of Team GB at the London Paralympics.
Bullen and Eyassu were in action in the Goalfix Cup at the weekend.
Bullen was playing for Leicester Bulls and coaching the Dons, while Eyassu stood out as the Cambridge team marched to the final.
The speed that he could put on the ball was impressive and his long frame crucial in keeping the ball out of his own goal.
And that is one of the crucial points: goalball is gruelling on the body and requires a huge amount of agility in defence and attack.
It is very up and down, with players being required to quickly adapt in defence in spreading their bodies to block shots, before getting back to their feet throughout the 24-minute matches.
“It’s quite a tough sport,” said Eyassu. “It might look easy but you have to sit down, squat, get up, catch the ball, release it within 10 seconds, run around the centre and get your place.
“You have to be agile, and concentration wise you have to be on it all the time. If you lack a little bit of concentration then you can concede a goal.”
If you are tempted to search the internet to watch a goalball match, then it really does the sport no justice as once you are watching it live, it is compelling and far faster-paced than it may appear in footage.
That speed was certainly prevalent from the likes of Caleb Nanevie, an up-and-coming player for the country who was representing Northern Allstars in the tournament.
He was able to get so much power in his shots that it was a constant menace to the opposition, while the talking of the likes of Joe Dodson for Leicester Bulls was key in disguising the footsteps of his team-mates before they took a shot.
But as for the tournament, it ended in heartbreak for Cambridge Dons on their own turf.
Eyassu, Warren Wilson and Michael Sharkey had no back-up to call upon with clubmates Leiter and Tipton unavailable, so the three had to shoulder all the matches themselves.
They did so in style, reaching the last two for the first time in their history, but they were up against a Winchester team that had beaten them 8-6 in the pool stages.
It was a tense final with some great defending from Cambridge matched by the efforts of Liam Hall for Winchester, and the Hampshire club edged it 5-3.
“We’ve won league tournaments but we’ve never won this and this is the first time we’ve got to the final,” said Eyassu.
“We tried everything, but the final was just a little bit disappointing.
“Personally, I think we didn’t actually expect to get to the final given we were only three players, but we did really well.
“I think we could have done much better if we’d had subs and rested a few players when we needed to.”
On the tournament being in Cambridge, Eyassu added: “This is the first time they’ve held the GB cup or elite tournaments here so it’s been fantastic for us.
“Some of the Cambridge youngsters have come and watched it as well. We did a goalball festival with some local Scouts, so they came to watch us and it was very nice to have supporters.
“We’re a bit disappointed we didn’t win the cup for them, but we gave it everything.”