The Immigrant: Victor Fraga talks football and praises the unsung heroes of Brazilian sport

Like the vast majority of Brazilian professional footballers, Raimundo Nonato was born in a non-privileged family. His infancy was devoid of luxuries and playing ball was often his only venting outlet. The difference is that – unlike Pelé, Tostão, Ronaldinho and Neymar – Raimundo Nonato is blind. The player also comes from a small town (Orocó) in one of the most impoverished parts of Brasil, the dry hinterlands  (the “Sertão”) of the North-eastern state of Pernambuco.

Raimundo started playing ball with able-bodied people and it wasn’t until he was 22 years old (in 2009) that he encountered football 5-a-side (football adapted for the unsighted) for the first time. Despite the late acquaintance, Nonato learnt very quickly and this year made it to his first Paralympics.

Nonato’s road to success was tricky and craggy, and he had to overcome physical and logistical barriers unknown to most professional players. He grew up and practised in an environment not suitable to his needs, and still relies on others for very simple tasks such as walking to the football field, finding the toilet or booking a flight. Yet he helped Brazil to take home their third consecutive gold medal after just three years of being introduced to the sport, an accomplishment which can only be dreamed of by the likes of Neymar.

Logic suggests that Nonato should be accordingly awarded for his impressive accomplishments, yet he confided to Jungle that he makes just R$3,100 a month (about £900), from a government scholarship. Comparatively, Neymar makes R$5.5m a month (£1.7m) from his various sponsorship deals and contract with Santos. Some Brazilian players in Europe make even more. This is not a relatively small discrepancy solely explained by commercial achievements of able-bodied football industry. Neymar makes 1,774 times more money than Nonato!

In reality, there is an element of prejudice here. A lot of people fail to recognise this, and Nonato himself thinks that blind football has limited exposure and financial aid simply because “people do not understand the needs of disabled people”. He concludes: “I don’t think that people are bigoted”.

In my view, there is a widespread and unspoken belief that disabled people are lesser beings, and they should be relegated to a second plan. Thankfully this is changing, and each and every day more people in Brazil and elsewhere realise that the disabled deserve extra credit and recognition for their efforts, instead of pity and marginalisation.

Quiet fans
Sadly, it could have been even worse if Nonato was born a female. There is no women’s football 5-a-side competition in the Paralympics, and Nonato himself has never encountered a lady playing the sport: “I think that they simply aren’t interested; everyone believes it’s a man’s sport”. Such attitude is reflected in many paralympic sports, and so only 67 out of the 165 participants that Brazil sent to London were female. Prejudice against disabled women is more deeply rooted, it seems.

Football 5-a-sideis like nothing you’ve seen before. It is a touching and humbling experience. The game is divided in two halves of 25 minutes, and each team has five players, four of which are completely blind. The goalkeeper is the only one who can see and does not have any disabilities. The ball is equipped with a noise-making device, which makes a rattling sound, and the goalposts also have a man-operated bell. The crowd is required to remain church quiet during the game so that the field players can hear the ball, the goalpost and communicate with each other – they are the only ones allowed to speak. Ironically, they are also the only ones unable to see their wondrous accomplishments. The crowds have to externalise their feelings in non-vocal ways, making the game atmosphere beautiful and vibrant in a unique and almost dreamlike manner.

Despite many advances in the past decade, life for the disabled in Brazil remains extremely challenging: the cities generally don’t have the infrastructure to physically-challenged. There are few sound-fitted street crossings for the blind, virtually no ramps for the wheelchair-bound and little support for those wanting to pursue a sport in general. Nonato believes that he would be a much better player if he had had contact with adapted football at an earlier age: “I learnt a lot by playing with sighted people, but things would’ve been much easier if I had access to blind football in my childhood or adolescence”.

Despite these challenges, Brazil reached 9th place in the gold medal count in Beijing and is likely to reach 7th in London. The able-bodied counterparts ended in 23rd and 22nd place in the respective Olympic Games. The disabled are the unsung heroes of Brazilian sports.

 

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