Brazil's blind footballers see way to their own World Cup glory
Sao Paulo, Jun 8 (AFP) Brazil's all-conquering blind footballers kick off their blind world cup campaign Friday knowing they're not only top dogs -- but top targets.
The International Blind Sports Federation's Blind Football World Championships began in Madrid Thursday and runs through 17 June.
Reigning world and Paralympic champions, the Brazilian team hopes to strike gold yet again, setting the example for their colleagues at the World Cup in Russia.
Brazilian star Ricardinho, who already has three Paralympic golds, says he's ready to battle for a back-to-back world title, starting with Friday's game against Mali.
"Everybody wants to take down the reigning champs, Brazil, and we want to get the title again. It will be complicated but we're going to fight a lot," he said.
Ricardinho, 29, was born to play soccer. Even as a tiny kid, when he still had good eyesight, admiring neighbors told his father to take him for trials at the big clubs.
However a problem in his retina that appeared at six year old left him totally blind at eight.
"In addition to the shock that I couldn't see, I was in pain because I thought I'd never play football again," he said at Brazil's Paralympic football field in Sao Paulo before leaving for Spain.
At 10, though, he discovered blind football, which is five-a-side and uses a ball with a bell. Only the goalkeepers are sighted.
"I started to train. It was a second chance to chase a dream I'd had since I was very small," he said.
Lacking access to the proper blind footballs, he'd wrap regular balls in plastic, so that they'd make noise, allowing him to practice. Then his family moved to the seaside city of Porto Alegre so that he could attend a specialized school.
At 17, he played in his first world championship and he went on to score more than a century of goals for the national team, earning two world titles -- and now gunning for his third.
- Playing for their lives -
Every player on a team of the blind has his own compelling story. Ricardinho's teammate Mauricio Dumbo escaped war in Angola and was brought to Brazil at 11. Childhood measles robbed him of his sight but not his love of football and now at 28 he plays winger for Brazil.
His sporting idols, whom he always followed by listening to radio commentaries, are France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane and Brazil's own World Cup champion striker Ronaldo "the Phenomenon."
But Dumbo's true sights go much further. Although he arrived in Brazil all but unable to read, he now has a law degree, and he wants the public to recognize him and his teammates as top-flight winners.
"My dream is that we be seen as professional athletes, which is what we are," he said. That 2016 Olympics gold medal in Rio de Janeiro also brought rewards of another kind: a chance to return to Angola and hug his mother again for the first time in 15 years.
Brazil are fancied to win in Spain but these players know that the real battle is life itself.
"Everyone's a fighter with his own challenges," Dumbo said.