Being part of the new England women’s blind team is something which is “still sinking in” for Natasha Mead, who hopes it will lead to another chance of fulfilling the “dream” of competing at a Paralympics.
The Football Association has created the team as part of its three-year ‘Football Your Way’ plan, announced last October, to help develop, improve and raise awareness of disability football in England.
Mead first became involved last August when open ‘activity days’ were held to begin the process of putting a squad together.
Following the trials stage, there have been training camps at St George’s Park since the turn of the year – the first official one was last weekend – and there were games played against Sweden in April.
Next week the squad travel to Pescara, Italy for a series of international matches, and next summer they are set to compete in an inaugural World Championships being held in Birmingham.
Mead, who has competed internationally in other sports and had been playing football “on and off for a couple of years” before the August activity day, told the PA news agency: “I’ve been progressing really well and I wasn’t really expecting to get this far.
“I think I’m still in shock to be honest. I think it’s still sinking in that I’m part of the England squad.
“I’ve had really good experiences along the way so far and going to Italy will be another big experience. I think it’s a great honour, and I’m very proud to be selected as part of the England team.”
The 27-year-old from Plymouth has previously represented her country playing cricket and goalball.
She was also a sprinter who ran for Great Britain at junior level and then had an unsuccessful trial for the London 2012 Paralympics – something she says left her “quite devastated”.
Women’s blind football is currently not a Paralympic sport – men’s has been since 2004 – but the hope within the FA is that it will be part of the Los Angeles 2028 Games, with a Great Britain team involved.
And Mead – also now playing for Brighton, and the only woman in that team – said: “I’d be really honoured to be part of a squad going out to the Paralympics in 2028.
“We’ll be looking at other competitions and opportunities before the Paralympics – that’s a long way off, and I feel we can be even stronger than we are now. (But) I think going to the Paralympics would be a dream – I think that’s every athlete’s dream.”
FA female para development coach Lauren Asquith says “it is really exciting times”.
Asquith added: “It is very much still in its infancy, we are still very much developing, but the fact we’re going next week (to Italy) is down to the hard work and the determination of the girls.
“If you’d have asked me last August if we’d be even playing a game at this stage, we probably wouldn’t have thought we would be here. But the girls have progressed at such a rate.
“Our aim really is to get the squad ready for the 2023 event, the equivalent of a World Cup, on home soil. We’ve only had two fixtures so far, so it’s a big step next week but we’re really excited we can do that.
“Tash is a role model but also a bit of a trendsetter. These girls are starting a movement, because there are girls who are visually impaired who at the moment don’t think of football as a viable option for them, so go into other sports.
“We absolutely want these girls to be the trailblazers, to make sure this is an accessible opportunity for any girl eligible to play for England to aspire to have the dream. And our long-term ambition is to get blind female football in the Paralympics.
“That’s why next week is massive for women’s blind football (internationally) – we’ve got to display that there’s a movement happening across the world to the Paralympic committee, for that to be considered for a future Games.”
Blind football is played five-a-side on a pitch with sideboards, with players wearing eye patching and eyeshades, apart from the goalkeepers.
A ball with audible ball bearings in is used, and the communication on the field includes players shouting ‘voy’ when going for the ball to signal their position to an opponent.
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