‘Blind Messi’ sees Paralympic gold for Argentina

Buenos Aires (AFP) – Silvio Velo has been blind since birth, but you wouldn’t know it watching him thread a football through an opponent’s legs, pick it up on the other side and fire it home for a goal.

Velo, who has been called the “blind Lionel Messi,” is the captain of Argentina’s visually impaired football team, the Murcielagos (Bats), who are hoping to win gold at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in August.

At 45 years old, he has led the team to virtually every other conquest in the sport: three World Cups, two Copa Americas, the silver medal at the 2004 Paralympics — the first to feature visually impaired football — and bronze in 2008.

Known for his speed, keen sense of the football field and incredible knack for scoring “golazos,” Velo has often been compared to his compatriot Messi, the Barcelona star and five-time World Player of the Year.

The best players in visually impaired football — a five-a-side game played with an audible ball that has small bells inside — tend to be those who have been blind all their lives, like Velo.

“When I heard a ball for the first time, it was like music,” said the charismatic star, who has a big smile and a contagious laugh.

He grew up playing football with his sighted friends in the port city of San Pedro.

He remembers being treated like just another kid in the neighborhood, even riding a bike and playing hide and seek — “although I never found anybody,” he said with a laugh.

He found out about a special version of football for the blind only when he was 10 years old. By then, he had already learned to hold his own against opponents who could see.

“I used to hear my friends juggling the ball off their knees, their shoulders, from one foot to the other,” he said.

“I thought, ‘How do I do that if I can’t see the ball? If I lift it off the ground, I’ll lose it.'”

His solution was to the ball inside a bag so he could hear it. Soon he was juggling with the best of them.

– Silent crowd, raucous pitch –

Velo’s talent and speed surprised his physical trainer, a childhood friend named Mariano Arnal.

“I used to train him by running with my hand tied to his, but he was so fast I ended up using a bicycle. And even then, I couldn’t keep up, so I ended up using a motorcycle,” Arnal said, laughing.

There is a magical quality to visually impaired football, the players crisscrossing the field without colliding like planets in orbit.

Although it looks much like regular football, the sounds of the game are inverted: the crowd must remain completely silent while there is a cacophony on the field.

Coaches yell instructions from the sidelines and behind the goal while players shout out their movements to each other.

They wear blindfolds to level the playing field between those with various degrees of visual impairment. Only the goalkeepers can see.

A father of five who recently became a grandfather, Velo is the go-to scorer for the Murcielagos.

He plays professionally for the visually impaired team of Buenos Aires club Boca Juniors, his childhood idols and the country’s most popular team.

They recently poached him from cross-town rivals River Plate, where he was the star player for a decade.

Just one exploit eludes him in the home stretch of a storied career: winning gold in Brazil.

“We want that medal,” he said.

“It’s the one we’re missing. We’re extremely fired up.”

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