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Sports

Meet the Bats, Argentina's Blind Soccer Team

Playing soccer while blindfolded may sound impossible, but Argentina's blind soccer team proves otherwise.
November 18, 2014, 3:30pm
Photo by Luis Cobelo

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in VICE Colombia and has been translated from Spanish.

The first day of the two weeks that I would spend with Los Murcielagos—The Bats—Argentina's blind national soccer team, was the beginning of a new learning experience for me, a lesson on the power to "see" more than what is there in front of you.

The team's strict coach, Martín Demonte doesn't tolerate tardiness. Demonte, who is not blind, has been managing Los Murcielagos since 2005 with an iron fist, a determined pedagogical approach, and a great deal of patience. Like millions of Argentines, he is passionate about soccer, and over time he has developed, along with his players, a creative understanding of how to make the best of blind soccer's official rules.

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"I enjoy what I do and I'm very lucky," Demonte says. "It's a personal accomplishment of mine to see soccer become a rehabilitative sport and to work with great people who give it their all to perform at their best.

"Los Murcielagos inspire respect and they make you want to play, they're encouraging. They prove that obstacles don't exist and that they can enjoy what they do."

Understand that the existence of a blind soccer team is nothing unusual in a country where most children are born with a soccer ball attached to their umbilical cord. In all of the neighborhoods in all of the cities of Argentina there are kids kicking balls around. So why not the visually impaired?

That's what led to the creation of the team in 1991. They began with few resources, but now, since they've won two World Cups, have the support of well-known sponsors and are moderately famous. The World Blind Soccer Championships have been split between Brazil (in 1998, 2000, and 2010) and Argentina (2002 and 2006). In the last two Paralympics, they won the silver medal in Athens and the bronze medal in Beijing. "We're missing the golden one," said Demonte, and he also added that, "we're prepared for Río de Janeiro in 2016, we're bringing everything we have."

I meet David Peralta, he's 30 years old. He's been playing with the national team since 2009. He heard my camera click when I started taking pictures and asked what type of camera I was using. "What kind of picture are you aiming to get, Luis? What are you trying to capture?" David is a forward and a native of Patagonia. He has a wife, who isn't blind, and three children. He lost his vision in an accident when he was five years old.

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"In the small village where I lived, there was a military base and in the fields nearby they would conduct field operations. I was with two other friends performing bike stunts when we found some grenades and started throwing them around. They blew up. One of my friends died and the other was unharmed."

David's left eye was damaged by shrapnel and he lost his right eye after multiple unsuccessful operations. As he recounts the story, it seems as if he doesn't have a single bad memory of it. "It was just something that happened, my life is what it is as a result of becoming blind and I'm not complaining one bit about it." Playing with the national team is his passion, "trust before you distrust," his motto. After taking his picture, I depart by saying, "I'll see you later." Embarrassed by what I said, I unsuccessfully stuttered an incoherent explanation, but he tells me, "Relax, don't worry about it, what you said was correct. I'll see you later."

Photo by Luis Cobelo

To move around in this world of darkness, you have to follow certain customs. Everyone must use the word "voy," which means "I'm going." Saying it is mandatory in international competition. Voy let's people know you are close by. If you're a blind soccer player, your other senses are infallible. Nothing gets past you. Blind soccer demands a great deal of energy, teamwork, and organization. You need good communication, concentration, and trust. Without those, you can't do a thing.

Players translate these skills to their daily lives, with their wives, kids, and families. And they're happy. Take Gustavo Maidana, who is 35 years old, and has been playing with the national team since he was 17. Married with three daughters, he was blinded at age 9 by a virus doctors had yet to even discover. The virus was so rare that he was the first reported case in the whole world. The virus also paralyzed him from the waist down.

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"What I asked God for, above all else, was a chance to walk again. I didn't care about being able to see again. After being bedridden for a year, I was able to get up and take my first steps. After four years of progress I started hanging out with other blind people from an institute in my neighborhood to play soccer with them. It was there where I was selected to be a part of the national blind soccer team."

Domingo Latela, the president of the Argentinian Blind Sports Federation (the Spanish acronym is FADEC), which organizes various sports disciplines like judo, swimming, track, and soccer, is also blind. He tells me that the team name Los Murcielagos was established after winning the world cup in 2002 in Río de Janeiro.

"In the Argentinian sports jungle we have the Pumas which is a rugby team and the Lionesses which is a field hockey team, so our captain, Silvio Vela, came up with the team name Los Murcielagos. It's true, that it's not a pretty animal, but a little bit of black humor is always necessary."

Silvio never loses the smile on his face. With 40 years of experience, he's been on the national team since its inception. He's considered the best blind soccer player in the world. He says, "I can't imagine life without sports, it's what lifts my self-esteem and adds passion to life, even if I wasn't blind I'd still play soccer. I was born to do this. To those kids who are blind, I would tell them to dedicate their lives to whatever it is that they like. Don't lock yourselves up at home and don't live with remorse, we were all born to be good at something and succeed at it."

Photo by Luis Cobelo

Froilán Pandilla, also known as Koki, is 33 years old and became blind from a genetic disease. His sight began to diminish at 5 years old, and by the time he was 19, he was totally blind.

"I've been playing soccer since I can remember with a bag tied to the ball so that I can be able to hear it and know where it's at," Padilla said.

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His life changed when Demonte saw him playing at a school in Buenos Aires.

"I live for soccer so much that my wife, who's also blind, says that she's going to dress up as a soccer ball to see if then I might pay attention to her."

After several days with the team, assimilating their passion for soccer, I feel like I am finally being accepted as family. They know my movements and they greet me without my even saying a word. I think they can smell me. To live it, to begin to understand what it is to not see, coach Demonte asks me to put a blindfold on (blindfolds are mandatory for all players) and play. They tell me that the essentials, the fundamental pillars of blind soccer, are trust and communication. The players laugh at me and challenge me; they talk trash and don't let up.

"Let it take you, don't be afraid, and and listen closely to what I'm saying," Demonte says.

I breathe deeply and I go for it. I feel like at any moment I'm going to get kicked, even though I realize that now I can hear players stepping closer towards me. Controlling the ball I'm afraid to crash into someone or something while dribbling. I am only able to say "voy" two or three times before I hear the ball disappear from my orbit. The ball has a rattle inside of it, so that you're able to locate it by sound, like a bat would.

They give me another opportunity, but this time they let me go without blocking me. Demonte yells, "Keep moving forward, the goal is close by, don't run, take two steps to the right, be careful, to the left, get closer…"

I yell "voy, voy, voy," thousands of times, and I hear them say, "Goal," so I strike the ball to the best of my ability … but nothing. I kicked wide, past the goal, out of bounds. The experience leaves me totally exhausted.

For Germán Márquez, the team's technical trainer, his experience with Los Murcielagos has opened the door to a whole new world for him. He now knows that much can be done without being able to see. "When you work with the blind, you can come to think that their life is full of impossibilities," he says. "But what I've come to learn is that despite having all my senses, I don't see more than what is obvious, and so I ask myself sometimes who is more disabled, us or them, who adapt to make a life for themselves."