On a brisk November day, I followed Petra, a 21-year-veteran of Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s stadium team, down from the press lunchroom to the mixed zone, where players and members of the media mingle after matches. At one end, there is a lobby with elevators to the interior levels of the BayArena; on the other, the tunnel opens onto the pitch. That is where we were headed.
Kickoff was minutes away. When I stepped out of the elevator and turned toward the tunnel, there was the whole team just inside, bouncing with excitement and raring to rush out to warm up.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, your Bayer Leverkusen!” the announcer told the fans. Out they dashed. The crowd roared.
Petra waited a few seconds and then said, “OK, let’s go.” Next out of the tunnel after the home team, a star-struck American who did not know he would be brought to a special section of the BayArena by taking a shortcut around the sidelines. I imagined I must have been a strange sight—if anyone noticed.
Soccer fans take many things for granted. If anything, the World Cup in Qatar has only begun to teach us that—from human rights and dignity to alcoholic beverages.
Despite the outrage, whether deadly serious or banal, many soccer fans still plan to watch the spectacle. Qatar and FIFA count on it. What if, however, you did not have the option? I don’t mean the option to watch the World Cup live or on TV, but at all.
If you take the stadium tour at the BayArena, one of the many things your guide will point out to you is two special rows of seats marked with yellow on the south end of the stadium, the Südkurve (opposite the raucous Nordkürve where Leverkusen’s diehard fans stand).
Those seats on the lefthand side of the Südkurve, below the suites, are where Bayer Leverkusen has provided blind and visually impaired fans a special matchday experience since 1999: the Blindenservice.
Petra introduces me to a tall, friendly man in a Leverkusen jacket and a black cap (the team colors). He wears glasses and rows of piercings in both ears: this is Andreas “Paffi” Paffrath. I call him “Puffy,” which is the most I can make out in the noise of the BayArena.
Paffi epitomizes why the fan culture of the Bundesliga is second to none: he’s a lifelong Leverkusen fan, since as far back as his first game in 1971, and he first became a Fanbeauftragter (fan representative) over thirty years ago, in 1988.
Now Paffi is also in charge of the Blindenservice at the BayArena and tells me about its history as we walk over to the Südkurve. Leverkusen was in fact was the first Bundesliga club to introduce Blindenreportage (“match commentary for the blind”)—and one of the very first clubs to do so in any sport in Germany.
The program debuted on October 15, 1999, when Bayer 04 Leverkusen hosted SSV Ulm 1846 (and won 4:1). Today, all the clubs in the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga, and now also throughout the 3rd Liga of Germany, offer a Blindenservice to visually impaired fans.
Paffi brings me up from the sidelines to the stands and introduces me to the commentators, Phillip and Phillip. They sit, quite literally, at a commentator’s box at the end of the section, where they can greet everyone for whom they regularly bring the match to life with their voices. Phillip Wegmann has been working here for eight years and Phillip Heuser, his colleague, for seven. Phillip W. hands me a headset that covers one ear and sits with me in the stands for a few minutes to talk before the match begins.
He and Phillip H. both have a background in radio. In addition to that, Phillip W. explains that they receive special training (and continue to take occasional seminars) to sharpen their skill at calling the game in a way that brings the action as vividly as possible to visually impaired fans. The goal, he tells me, is that after a game, if you asked a person who could see and a blind person what had happened in a game, they both could tell you the same thing—as if the blind person had seen everything just as clearly as—or even more clearly than—an ordinary spectator.
Each club has its own setup. Borussia Dortmund, for example, places its match commentators for the blind high in the stands, near the press area above the halfway line, where they have a superior view of the game. But not Bayer Leverkusen. Phillip explains that it was important for the club to maintain a real, personal connection between the two commentators and the fans they serve.
There is also a factor of authenticity at work in that decision to keep the commentators in the same section as their audience: the section for the blind at the BayArena is directly behind one of the goal lines. When the ball is in play on that end of the pitch, the commentators have an outstanding view. Vice versa, though, when the action is at the opposite end—a corner is conceded, a player is fouled, a penalty is given, a goal is scored—the commentators’ own view is only as good as any fan’s vision would have been from those seats.
In the middle of the game, it thus might happen that the commentators tell their listeners what they seem to see only subsequently to discover what really happened a moment later (they can follow replays on laptops at their desk). Then, when they get a moment, they’ll relay the correction to the fans. For that brief moment in between, though, the visually impaired effectively see what happened only as clearly as they might have seen it with their own eyes from afar, like the rest of us seated in the stands.
As kickoff approaches, Phillip heads back to his desk and I put on my headset. It is time to lock in.
Match commentary for the blind at Bayer Leverkusen and elsewhere is not just match commentary in the conventional sense. It is not as if the commentators say nothing until the ball is finally touched and the clock begins ticking. Their mission is bigger: their job is to convey to their audience all the sights.
Hence, the game coverage in fact begins with a description of the scene at the arena. How full it is (sold out), what is happening on the field as the players warm up, and more. Phillip W. describes a giant fan banner that the Leverkusener ultras have hung across the Nordkurve:
REISST EUCH DEN ARSCH AUF GEMEINSAM FÜR LEV!!!
BUST YOUR ASSES TOGETHER FOR LEV(ERKUSEN)!!!
Banners are waving, the players come out for the opening ceremony. The commentators not only state those simple facts, but describe in detail what the players are wearing—the color of the jerseys, shorts, and socks—and what the goalies are wearing. Today Union Berlin is wearing a somewhat strange “Eierschal” (eggshell) colored jersey.
The attention to detail extends to the lineups. The commentators go over every player’s name and number. As the players take their places on the field, the commentators describe their tactical positions. Union looks ready to sit deep with a 3-5-2 fronted by American international Jordan Pefok. Xabi Alonso seems to have lined up Leverkusen in a 3-4-3 with Mitchell Bakker and Jeremie Frimpong playing as wingbacks.
The match begins!
What is it like to listen to the live commentary? I consider myself fluent in German, and I have to confess: it is an adjustment. The commentary is lightning fast.
I recorded this sample by putting my phone up to my headset. The crowd was incredibly LOUD—but the audio was easy enough to hear. Unfortunately, my recording does not do it justice because of the crowd noise. Take my word for it that the commentators were much louder over the crowd than they seem here:
Here is a partial transcription in translation. Notice the amount of detail they cram into everything—every player, every movement, and every location indicated by fixed markers like the various lines and circles on the field. They describe the motion as a constant flow of the ball from one player to another:
…through Tapsoba over to Hincapie, who receives the ball from Hradecky; to Bakker on the halfway line, who moves left, back toward the center; to Andrich, who crosses the ball to the right side, near the halfway line, to Demirbay; Haberer is there [defending him], and again the ball rolls into no man’s land, because the coordination is simply lacking…
That was the second pass Demirbay played to no one (the first one was even worse—on a free kick). It was a frustrating half, but then Union’s goalkeeper Grill gave Leverkusen their first legitimate chance of the game:
…and Grill has the ball again away from Frimpong, and he rolls the ball out of the penalty area—he plays a catastrophically bad pass to the feet of Andrich! 30 meters out from goal on the left, Andrich finds Amiri on the left corner of the penalty area, Amiri turns, shoots, it’s just high! The first dangerous chance so far in this match by the former German national team player, shot from 16 meters out … with his strong right foot … over the top left corner of the goal.
Phillip and Phillip gave the sounds of the game an auditory shape that enabled the fans to follow all its excitement as it unfolded. I could shut my eyes and simply listen, picture or rather map the game in my mind like a bat, as the ball moved from one end of the field to the other, and absorb the details that the commentators gave as events developed.
All of this had to be described very quickly and very succinctly. In terms of match commentary, it was easily as good and in some ways superior to what we are used to hearing on television: hearing every player’s name, their precise locations, the nature of plays and the action, all of it seemed to me to reinforce my visual processing of the game. It’s one thing to watch passively, quite another to listen to such a detailed description that you can picture for yourself.
At halftime, Petra reappeared at the bottom of my section to escort me back to my group of journalists. I thanked Phillip and Phillip and again passed through the tunnel on the way to the elevators. A five-goal Torfest was about to unfold in the second half of the game. I had a bird’s eye view for that half from high above the halfway line, where the press sits (each seat provided with a screen for replays). But I wish I could have heard it instead—and seen the joy the live commentary brought Leverkusen’s blind fans as it played out on the field.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s description of the Blindenservice: “Service for Visually Impaired” (club website)
Andreas “Paffi” Paffrath gave an interview about his job for Bergische Krankenkasse: “Bayer 04 ist Heimat für mich” (Bergische Krankenkasse, 2020)
For more about match service for the blind and visually impaired in Germany, see: