Meet Jefinho, the Blind Brazilian Soccer Star Being Hailed the “Paralympic Pelé”

The Paralympic Games are almost over and “Paralympic Pelé”, who was blind by the age of 7 as a result of glaucoma, is the athlete to watch. Don’t know who he is? Here’s the 4-1-1.

Jeferson da Conceição Gonçalves, who is also known as Jefinho, will compete on September 17 with the rest of the Brazilian 5-a-side soccer squad against Iran; with a win, Jefinho will obtain his third Paralympic soccer gold medal. He is arguably the best visually impaired soccer player ever, and not only has he been compared to soccer legend Pelé, his name is also being mentioned in the same breath as Neymar.

Like many Paralympic sports, 5-a-side soccer (or football) is a modified version of the more commonly known sport. It’s played during 25-minute halves by visually impaired athletes who are blindfolded, with the exception of the goalies, who are not visually impaired. Audio elements are important for the athletes; the soccer ball makes noise when it moves, and athletes are guided by verbal instructions from their coaches, who also hit metals against the goalposts to provide direction. Fans need to be silent so that the game can be properly played. As Fox News Latino reports, the soccer field is reduced in size and walled in, so there is no out-of-bounds territory.

The athletes that compete every four years at the Paralympic Games often overcome great challenges in order to participate, and are undeniable sources of inspiration. The Paralympics show what people with physical disabilities are capable of, and simultaneously serve as a reminder of how far society still has to go toward being inclusive of the differently abled. While blind soccer star Jefinho has been embraced by his countrymen and women, Brazilians with physical disabilities are still subject to unequal conditions and opportunities.

Brazil’s Jefinho, left, is pressured by Iran’s Hossein Rajabpour, from second left to right. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
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Today about 30 million Brazilians have a physical disability, based on a 2000 census, which put the number at almost 15 percent of the population. For decades, advocates have been fighting for disability rights in Brazil, and Rio specifically, but more needs to be done. The main issue when it comes to disability rights, according to attorney Gustavo Proença da Silva Mendonça, is that carrying out the laws isn’t viewed as a priority but as a charity.

Despite promised improvements, for example, people with physical disabilities haven’t been able to fully participate as spectators during the Paralympics. As Christian Science Monitor reported, wheelchair users have been having a difficult time getting to Paralympics venues because transportation and sidewalks aren’t wheelchair accessible. Since the Games shine a temporary light on para athletes, the legacy that the Rio Paralympics will leave in Brazil is uncertain.

The state of disability rights isn’t a problem that’s unique to Brazil, and is present in other countries as well. It’s not enough to focus on para athletes and people with physical disabilities during the Paralympic Games once every four years. Imagine what could be achieved if people with physical disabilities were supported every day, year-round.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching and rooting for Jefinho – an athlete set on making his own name in history.