He dribbles the ball between the left and right foot to and fro, is quick and agile, is strong in the tackle and has a powerful shot. Serdal Celebi does everything that makes up a good player. There’s only one thing he can’t do: see. Due to a detached retina he lost his eyesight at aged 12. “Before I became blind, I loved playing football on the street. Suddenly, I couldn’t do that anymore,” he recalls. A cruel twist of fate that changed his life forever. It took him a while to come to terms with what had happened. “After three or four years I said to myself: Who cares, I’m blind but I’m still alive.” This attitude brought him back to football in 2009 and he found that FC St. Pauli had a blind football team. “That immediately motivated me,“ he said.
Today, he’s arguably Germany’s most famous blind footballer playing today. The reason behind a goal that he scored in the final of the German Blind Football Championship against MTV Stuttgart. ST Pauli trailed 2-0 as Celebi picked up the ball, beat four players and hit an unstoppable effort into the top left corner. His goal did not inspire a comeback unfortunately but was such a great strike that it was voted ARD-Sportschau’s August Goal of the Month – a first for a blind footballer. “That was simply incredible, an indescribable feeling,” said Celebi.
It was a similar feeling to the one he describes when recounting the role he played in the draw for the DFB Pokal Round of 16 draw. Borussia Dortmund versus Werder Bremen, Hertha BSC versus Bayern Munich – all these ties were drawn out by the blind footballer. “I’d have loved to have drawn out a real derby like Schalke versus Dortmund,” he says reflectively and added: “It wasn’t to be but the draw means that almost all the Bundesliga 2 sides are playing at home which is fair.” He wasn’t a complete novice in the TV studio though as Celebi was a guest at Stern TV and has given interviews to several newspaper journalists. “I see myself as an ambassador of blind football,” he said.
It’s a role he’s taking very seriously. He’s not satisfied being one of the best players in his field. Celebi wants to expand the popularity of the sport amongst children, adults and the visually impaired alike. He runs a children group for blind footballers. “If a child comes to his first training and has only one touch of the ball, that’s still a success for us,” said Celebi. He grins as he feels the passion amongst the children.
Alongside head coach Wolf Schmidt, he’s developing his own playing style to promote inclusion in which blind people and those who can see make a team where only blind players can score. Those who can see must work as delivers. “It leads to strong challenges, good passes and a lot of fun,” said Celebi. He’s ever more involved in blind football, he gives seminars at schools, in businesses and even in prisons – not only for blind people, but for everyone. With glasses that are worn by all blind footballers to ensue all have the same level of vision, participants have to rely on their senses and one another. “Blind football promotes team work, communication and collaboration. As a consequence, we’re often booked,” said Celebi.
Chiefly, it’s a very special experience to play football in seeming darkness. You don’t trust yourself to move correctly. Even if someone tells you there’s no one in front of you, fear of a collision with someone or something reigns. On top of that, there is the ball. It has a rattle in it so the players can hear it and move towards it – but that’s easier said than done. Even when you finally have the ball at your feet and want to dribble, someone hits it away and the search for the ball restarts.
If the opposition has the ball, it’s not any easier. The player with the ball has to constantly call “Voy, Voy” (Spanish for ‘oncoming’). That’s not easy when you’re completely out of breath due to the hectic nature of the game. Celebi smiles. “Before, I used to always get frustrated about the fact that the ball was always quicker than myself,” he says. “It takes time before you get a feeling for the game.”
Serdai Celebi isn’t someone who wrangles with twists of fate for a long time. “I’m happy,” he says. He takes a lot from his work as a physiotherapist. The patients know to value that he cannot see but he can make up for that by understanding the emotions. He comes home with his wife and one-year-old son waiting for him: “My life depends on my child. Due to my job, my blind football and my family, I have less time for myself, but I don’t mind that. I like my life the way it is.“
He is relaxed and funny off the pitch but focused on it. All he wants to do is play. If his head coach gives him too many instructions in training, he gets impatient. Wolf Schmidt knows the character of Serdal: “His desire is clear for all to see. There’s no player who shows more desire and passion than Serdal but he understands the importance of listening to his teammates and being part of a team too.” Celebi knows exactly that you can only win titles in football as a team. “We’ve been German Championship winners once in 2017. We’d like to do that once again,“ he remarks.
Serdal Celebi will do his part in 2019 so that FC St Pauli’s blind football team are successful. He’ll continue dribbling the ball, getting stuck into challenges and scoring goals: just like any other player.