It’s a balmy fall evening in Rio de Janeiro. The robust crowd within the Olympic Tennis Center, here to see a unique soccer contest, is unnaturally silent. The referees remind the audience to keep their voices down with a wave of their hand and a polite “silent please” projected over the loudspeaker each time they move to put the ball in play. The participants on both teams must be able to hear the ball, which contains loose ball bearings that rattle when it moves. Still, in the stands, waves of people quietly dance, take photos and shoot video of the action on the field. Silvio Velo, 45 and blind since birth, is about to shoot a free kick for Argentina less than thirty feet away from the goal. It’s a sizable opportunity for the men dressed in sky-blue and white stripes. They’re locked in a 0-0 tie against their red-clad counterparts from Iran, and there’s just five minutes left on the clock. The winner of this semifinal battle will play the Brazilian team for the Paralympic Games gold medal in blind soccer. On the green turf a few steps in front of Velo, the Iranian goalkeeper (who is sighted, as are all the goalies) guides his four blind teammates into position, forming a wall and hoping for the best.
Velo, eternal captain of Los Murciélagos – “The Bats,” as the Argentinian players are known– is a legend in blind soccer. Before Velo, there were neither official tournaments nor international regulations. He has earned every possible honor in blind soccer, and won every possible team title – except first place in the Paralympic Games. Climbing to the top of the podium in Rio is, as he puts it, his “golden dream.”
As soon as the referee blows his whistle, an Iranian player runs out of the wall at Velo, who dribbles around him with a lightning-quick right-left combo move, confounding the defense. Suddenly, Velo is alone in front of the goalkeeper. He rares his leg back and takes the shot. “Most soccer players never find the goal,” Velo says. “We find it blind.” The goalie, knees on the ground, throws his fists at the ball, which is flying at the right corner of the goal, and saves it.
That’s it for Velo. He walks off the pitch, substituted, one minute later, and Argentina loses the game to Iran in penalty kicks.
“The mood in the locker room was dreadful. Absolute sadness,” Velo says. “We needed to be in mourning, we needed one day to recover.”
The players sat down in a circle, as they always do after a game. Velo, standing in front of teammates – some younger than his own children – addressed them. “The gold medal is not for us anymore,” he said. “We came to these games with one goal: to win a medal. We cannot go back to Argentina without one and there is still one for the taking. In two days, we will be playing for the bronze against China. They won’t give the bronze away. We have to win it.”
But despite this pep talk, the defeat against Iran was the end of his “golden dream,” a fantasy that began decades ago in San Pedro, Argentina, a port city on the Paraná river, 110 miles from capital Buenos Aires.
Silvio Velo was born May 29, 1971. When he was young, Velo wanted to do all the things his twelve siblings did. “I played hide-and-seek but I never found anyone,” Velo says, bursting into laughter. His father was a construction worker and his mother a maid, and money was scarce. Living in a shantytown in San Pedro, the Velo youths shared everything.
“My first memories as a child were of soccer,” says Velo, today a short, sturdy, bronzed man, legs like tree trunks and with a perennial smile. “My brothers and I had a ball. It was our only toy because it was very easy to share.” Velo played with his siblings and friends on improvised pitches throughout the neighborhood. The turf was sand and rocks; the goalposts made of stacked backpacks and bottles. He was the only blind kid in the area, but the most passionate about the game. “I didn’t care if I was good or bad, I just wanted to play,” he says. But he didn’t appreciate it when his peers put him in goal. The ball disappeared off his radar as soon as it was not bouncing on the ground, frustrating him.
When Velo turned ten his parents took him to a specialized institution for blind children in Buenos Aires. “I have quite fond memories of that time,” he says. The Institute Román Rosell was Velo’s home for the next decade. Rooms were like barracks, twenty beds deep, but he says the food – consisting of a lot of meat and pasta – was delicious. In class, Velo learned how to read and write in braille. The school also had a soccer team. Teachers had managed to craft audible balls by gluing metal bottle caps to their surface. Every time the balls bounced, the caps jingled, and the students located them by sound. Velo’s life changed forever.
“I was used to playing with my friends … without hearing the ball,” Velo explains. “So when I arrived at the school, the difference between me and my classmates was very perceptible. They didn’t have the same experiences.”
Five years later, with the legendary Diego Maradona led Argentina to its second World Cup title, journalists began to visit Institute Román Rosell to report on a small, but quick and incredibly skillful teenage boy on the pitch. Velo was dubbed the “Maradona of Blind Soccer.”
By 1991 Velo was donning the famous sky-blue and white Argentinian colors, representing his country on the national blind soccer team. That year, Argentina played host to the Championship and Sport Games for the Blind, one of the first Latin American tournaments for blind people. Velo wore the captain’s armband.
Though international blind soccer competitions began in the 1980s, rules for the sport at that time varied from one country to another. There were vast differences in field dimensions; five-a-side contests were common but not always the norm; game time limits were not equal; and players with disparities in their visual impairments were competing against each other.
Velo’s squad struggled, losing every game they played in the tournament. Still, Velo regarded the gathering as a milestone for the sport. “It laid the cornerstone of the national team,” he says. “It is now connected to everything I have achieved in my life.”
The international rules of blind soccer were formalized in the mid-90s. The game would be played five-a-side with a sighted goalkeeper. Blindfolds were placed over the eyes of every roving player to offset the varied levels of visual impairment between them. Standard-issued balls were utilized; fields surrounded by kickboards from which the clinking ball rebounds, could be played upon.
The sport joined the International Blind Sports Federation in 1996. Two years later the first blind soccer World Cup, with teams from eight countries, including Velo’s Argentinian team, played in Brazil. In 2002, the squad won its first World Cup, and began calling themselves “the Bats.” Four years later, the Bats took the trophy again, smartly feeding Silvio Velo the ball as often as possible.
“You can feel that he knows when he is going to score a goal,” explains Martín Demonte, current manager of the Argentinian blind soccer national team. “Most blind players lapse into repetition and you can predict their movements. Velo has no equal, he is illegible.”
Velo scored his team’s only goals in both finals, including one so impressive that it rivals perhaps the most celebrated “Goal of the Twentieth Century” of Velo’s boyhood idol, Maradona. The Bats were on defense against Brazil when the ball bounced back to midfield and Velo controlled it. He ran against two defenders, dribbled through them and froze in front of the goalkeeper. Sensing that the goalie was flying toward his feet, Velo faked a hard shot and lifted the ball over him.
“He chipped it! Blind!” marvels Demonte. “It was one of the most beautiful moments Velo has ever given me.”
“Soccer is not something you see,” says Velo. “You feel it.”
Fortune, however, has eluded Velo in the Paralympic games. He took silver at the Athens 2004 games and bronze in Beijing 2008. The Bats only managed a fourth-place showing in London 2012.
Velo has been playing for so long that his nickname has gone from “the Maradona of Blind Soccer” to “the Messi of Blind Soccer,” for the contemporary Argentinian great, Lionel Messi. Two generations of Argentinian soccer fans and players have grown older with him. Toda, Velo shares the field with players old enough to be his own children – of which he has seven with his wife, Claudia, plus one grandchild.
The daily routine of a legend in blind soccer starts everyday before sunrise. He spends the early hours with Claudia and their children, but by eleven he’s on his way to Buenos Aires – a two-hour drive from San Pedro, where he still lives – for practice. Velo’s family won’t see him again until nine p.m. at the earliest. In spite of the wear and tear on his body – he’s undergone surgeries on both his knees and is in constant pain – he’s not ready to retire. “I am still passionate about soccer,” the 45-year-old says. “A professional sportsman has to have some pains. When nothing hurts, it means that you are not trying hard enough.”
Longtime teammate and Bats goalkeeper Darío Lencina, 36, says that whatever Velo’s game has lost in terms of physical wiriness, he makes up for with his acumen. “Blind soccer is being played at a higher pace,” Lencina adds. “Players are smarter than before, and Velo is more intelligent. The game has evolved with him.”
Velo raves at the advancements made in blind soccer gameplay and strategies, even though they have chipped away at his ability to dominate. “It has truly become a team game,” Velo says. “Now, everybody has an understanding of the tactics, and every player can perform as well as the other. My age is concealed by the fact that we play as a team. Before, our main plan was to hand me the ball.”
Demonte fondly remembers Velo’s presence in the locker room after the Paralympics loss to Iran. “The players were torn apart,” Demonte says, “and he said, ‘This team is defined by our joy.’ It seemed to be a banal comment, but it became important just because he said it. Two days later, against China, we played our best game of the tournament.”
“We woke up to play for the bronze as if it was the gold medal,” Velo says. Argentina beat China in penalty kicks. “Two days before we were shattered. But,” he continues, offering a phrase that will serve as the title of his upcoming biography, “when there is will, there are a thousand ways.”
The book announcement sounds like a prelude to retirement and Velo admits, “As soon as I feel that I cannot keep pace with my teammates, I’ll say farewell to soccer.” But his family has heard that before – many times over the past decade. They’re having a hard time believing Velo will ever retire.
Off the pitch, like Maradona and Messi, Velo has become a role model in Argentina. He’s appeared on TV countless times, in the news, on reality shows and talk shows, and was even interviewed by Maradona himself. “I would like to keep on transmitting the idea that there are no impossibles in this life, no real barriers,” Velo says.
Two weeks after the Paralympics, he received an invitation from the Vice President of Argentina, Gabriela Michetti, to visit her in the executive office. “He is a hero on and off the pitch and I have asked him to work with me developing new policies of social inclusion,” the Vice President said in a press conference after the meeting. Velo didn’t want to give many details on what such a role would involve, but asserts social work is a calling he will attend to sooner rather than later.
For now though, “life without soccer would be too boring,” he says, before pondering: “Maybe I can move to a coaching position…”
Demonte says he’s never heard of a blind coach before, but, “in the case of Velo, anything is possible.”