Panama City, May 31 (EFE).- A member of Panama’s border patrol lost his right leg nine years ago when he stepped on a landmine planted by Colombian guerrillas in the thick Darien jungle.
“The explosion happened in the jungle and the rescue helicopter couldn’t go down and get me. My (fellow guardsmen) had to carry me on their shoulders for hours. When I woke up, my leg was mangled,” Alexander Perez, who has used a titanium and carbon fiber prosthetic limb ever since, told EFE.
A soccer fan and athlete since he was a young boy, Perez assumed he would never kick a ball again. The same thought crossed the minds of Luis Espinosa and William Mendieta, who both lost lower limbs in traffic accidents.
Their lives changed dramatically, however, in January when they decided to join with others in a similar situation and founded Panama’s first soccer team for amputees.
“We didn’t know that amputee soccer existed at an international level. When we learned about it, we didn’t hesitate to try it out,” said Espinosa, who since losing his right leg in a truck accident had promoted wheelchair soccer through a small association.
“There are lots of amputees who want to practice sports, but they don’t even want to hear about wheelchairs … Discovering this sport has been a gift,” he told EFE during a training session.
Amputee soccer still is not a Paralympic sport but it is gaining traction worldwide, FIFA says.
The game is played somewhat differently from one country to another, although certain rules are standard worldwide.
Outfield players must have at least one amputated lower limb and play with crutches (and without a prosthesis), while goalies must be single-arm amputees.
Games consist of two 25-minute halves, and it is considered a foul to use a crutch to voluntarily push, control or stop the ball.
Mendieta said his team members find it much easier to run with crutches than a prosthesis because most of them have older devices that are not suitable for sports.
“Putting on a prosthesis for the first time is like when you’re a child and you’re learning to walk,” said the young athlete, who said his company did not provide financial assistance after he was struck by a car while directing traffic at a road-construction site.
If not for the generosity of his city’s mayor, who gifted him a prosthesis (a device that typically costs at least $10,000), Mendieta would now be in a wheelchair.
The team practices twice a week at a public field in Panama City and receives coaching from two Panamanian soccer players, Fidel Caesar and Clifford Brown.
Despite being in existence for just a few months, the team will makes its international debut on July 25 in Costa Rica at an amputee soccer tournament, where it could face off against veteran sides such as three-time world champion El Salvador, a competitor in this sport for more than 30 years.
The Panamanian Sports Institute is covering the cost of the team’s transportation and housing, while a Panamanian national squad player (whose name the team prefers not to reveal) has provided them with uniforms.
“They’re calling us the tournament’s Cinderella because of our lack of experience, but challenges are there to be overcome,” a smiling Espinosa said.
“There are people with two legs who don’t get after it. We have a lot of willpower and we always go out there with our heads held high,” Perez added.