When I applied for tickets for the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament I did so because I wanted to experience the passion and excitement of live high quality football and I wanted to do so in my favourite country. I have attended live football before and know that nothing beats the thrill of the build-up, the noise of the fans and the atmosphere inside the stadium. I also (thought) I knew that it would be almost impossible for me to actually follow what was happening on the pitch. The players would be blurry smears of contrasting colours and the ball would move far too quickly for me to follow. I would have to guess the general pattern of the match from the reactions of the crowd around me and would fill in the gaps later by watching the highlights with my nose inches from the television screen.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered that a team of volunteers would be providing live audio description at the match! Armed with my portable FM radio and headphones I duly tuned in to 91.8 once settled in the stands. AD can often be fraught with technical problems so it was a relief to immediately hear a recorded message informing me that the service was working and that live commentary would start shortly before the match. Coincidentally, our seats were next to the press stand from where the audio description would be delivered: as soon as the technical team spotted my white cane they came over to check that everything was working and they lent me some special headphones so that the commentary would not be drowned out by the very noisy Swedish fans sitting round me. When I explained that I have a professional as well as a personal interest in AD they even introduced me to the two volunteer describers.
Lucas Carcano and Leandra Iacono are studying sports journalism in Nice and they have been specially trained in live football audio description. When we met before the match they described the layout of the stadium to me, gave me an idea of the look and behaviour of the two groups of fans and told me a little bit about the players’ warm up which was going on below us. Most importantly, they explained the system of zones they were going to use during the description. By dividing the pitch into four areas, labelled A-D, they could accurately give me the position of the ball throughout the game: for the first time I would be able to get a real sense of where the ball was on the pitch and follow the players as they moved around it. Like a television camera focusing in on the part of the pitch in play, Lucas and Leandra’s references to zones would allow me to focus my attention on the requisite section of the pitch.
Unlike AD tracks on film, which begin at the same time as the film does (thus rendering ads and trailers inaccessible), Lucas and Leandra started their description with the pre-match ceremony and described the arrival of the players, the display of flags, the national anthems and the fans’ reactions to it all. Without them I would not have known that all the Swedish fans were jumping up and down in unison whilst unfurling a giant flag with a tribute to Italy in one corner. By making me feel more involved in the build-up, their words pulled me into the atmosphere in a way I have never experienced before.
As the game began I was immediately astonished and delighted by the energy and enthusiasm my describers put into their work. It was very soon apparent that as well as being accomplished journalists they were also extremely knowledgeable and passionate football fans. Without ever seeming to pause for breath they told me who had the ball, where they were passing it, who was waiting to receive it, who was tackling whom, when there were fouls and what the referee was dong about them and how and why the crowd was reacting as it did.
As well as focusing on the detail of the match, they also managed to give me a sense of the teams’ positions as a whole and how their tactics varied. I learnt that Sweden prefer long balls which are not always successfully recuperated, that the Italian goalie takes his time before every goal kick, that some players get up immediately after falling whilst others lie there moaning. They told me about near-misses and awkward turns, substitutions and injuries, yellow cards and free kicks; off-sides and corners. In lulls in the action they gave their impressions of the game, who was playing well, who looked tired, who was having fun. They combined detail with knowledge and facts with analysis in a unique and very appealing way: I felt not only that I knew what was happening on the pitch but also that I understood why it was happening and what it might lead to.
I was astonished by how much their audio description differed from radio commentary. Whilst radio commentators give more of a sense of the game’s action than television commentators do, they (paradoxically) fall far short of the detail of AD. Radio commentators tend to do as their name suggests: they comment on the action, often comparing the current game to previous performances or listing statistics and interesting facts about the players. They privilege banter over description and lapse into silence without explaining why the game has paused. On the other hand, Lucas and Leandra worked really hard to provide a rich and enriching aural experience. Whilst they did include some helpful background information, such as which players on opposing sides were team mates in club football, and how they were dealing with this on the pitch, they were focused on the flow of the game. This meant that I felt more immersed in the experience that I have ever done before. I must have experienced hundreds of match commentaries on television and radio. But this is the first time that I have felt so involved and included in the action. It was as if the detail of television close-ups was combined with the thrill of live action. There is no doubt that I got just as much - and probably more – out of the game thanks to Lucas and Leandra than the sighted fans around me.
After the match, and after I’d thanked them both about a thousand times, my describers asked me how they could make the service even better. I couldn’t really think of much that they themselves could do to improve what had been a truly remarkable description. But perhaps live sporting events could take some inspiration from current practices in accessible theatre: as well as offering live AD of selected performances, some theatres also offer pre-show touch tours where blind audience members are able to familiarise themselves with the set and even the actors. No doubt my experience would have been even more memorable had I been able to walk the pitch, touch the goal netting and perhaps even fondle Ibrahimovic’s muscles…
Lucas and Leandra are on duty again tonight for the match between Russia and Wales and I wish them both 'bon courage'. I also wish I could be there with them. Nothing I experience on TV or radio in the next weeks of the tournament will come close to the intensity and impact of their amazing live audio description.
With thanks to Julie Bertholon from the Federation des aveugles de France for telling me about the service, to my Dad for accompanying me to the match, to all the volunteers who helped me find seats, toilets and transport, and of course to Lucas and Leandra for quite simply transforming my experience of football.