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Disabled para-footballers embody everything good about the beautiful game

They may not earn millions, but para-footballers epitomize the true spirit of the game

The victorious Brazilians accept their gold medals

If you’re a football fan, chances are you've heard of Brazilian great Zico. But how about Zeca? The striker will never become a household name like his legendary compatriot, but he's a footballing great in his own right. Last weekend, Zeca – whose real name is Jose Monteiro Guimaraes – scored the go-ahead goal as Brazil ran out 3-1 winners against bitter rivals Argentina. 

With his hefty frame, bald head and deep-set eyes, Zeca looks more like a tough-tackling midfield destroyer than a prolific goalscorer. But with four goals in his last six games, including his poacher’s finish against Argentina, it’s apparent that he knows where the back of the net is. 

If you’re still scratching your head, I don’t blame you. The reason you haven’t heard of Zeca is because he doesn’t play for Dunga’s Selecao, but for Brazil’s national para-football team – for players with physical disabilities. His goal on Saturday came in the final of the 7-a-side football competition at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto, Canada. 

Para-footballers epitomize the true spirit of the game

This version of football is played by athletes with movement impairments arising from cerebral palsy or various other neurological disorders. When you see these players on the street, as I have around Toronto, their symptoms make them appear awkward and uncoordinated. But on the field of play, there’s a surprising elegance and athleticism to them that quickly makes you blind to their physical disabilities. 

We often talk about Messi and Ronaldo “transcending” football – it’s one of the most common and longstanding cliches in the game. But it’s a term that really should be used more selectively. I, for one, think it applies rather aptly to para-footballers, who may not transcend the sport in terms of earnings, glory or name recognition, but certainly do so when it comes to epitomizing the true ideals and spirit of the game. 

Like in regular football, 7-a-side para-football features its share of gamesmanship, playacting and competitors losing their cool in the heat of battle. In Saturday’s final, Argentine midfielder Matias Bassi was given his marching orders after accumulating two yellow cards – one for committing a reckless foul and the second for needlessly running his mouth moments later. His coach promptly launched a loud verbal barrage at the female assistant referee, who had about as much to do with the decision as I did sitting in the stands. 

There was also an instance when a Brazilian player lay on the turf groaning in apparent agony, only to miraculously spring to his feet upon the referee turning a blind eye to his appeals. 

Brazil substitute Maycon celebrates his gold medal-winning goal

But ultimately, these players display a very genuine and palpable mutual respect, one that doubtless arises from their recognition of a shared struggle – something that isn’t present in the elite arenas of football or indeed any other sport. 

For someone who has spent much of their life following and being invested in the fates of elite teams and multi-millionaire players, it’s pretty eye-opening to witness the passion and heart of para-footballers who leave everything out on the pitch out of nothing but their love for the game and their desire to win and realize their potential – the fundamental motivators of sport in its pure, stripped-down form. 

The takeaway here is that these players aren’t paraplegia sufferers who play football. They are footballers – who happen to have physical disabilities.

Most of all, they are the ultimate ambassadors of the beautiful game and the values we like to think it represents.

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