Brazil: Reigning champions of football 5-a-side

Gold medallists Brazil celebrate on the podium at the medal ceremony for the football 5-a-side - Men's Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
Gold medallists Brazil celebrate on the podium at the medal ceremony for the football 5-a-side - Men's Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)

Brazil have remained the unbeatable champions of football 5-a-side ever since the sport was introduced to the Paralympic Programme at Athens 2004.

And as the sport becomes even more popular worldwide, the stakes are even higher next year for the team, who are looking to retain their winning streak and bring home the crown for the fifth time.

For Jeferson da Conceição Gonçalves, popularly known as Jefinho, who has been playing with the squad since Beijing 2008, the secret of their success comes down to one thing.

"It's no coincidence that Brazil are a four-time Paralympic champion and have won several world titles. Our team, both the players and the technical committee, are very well prepared in terms of organisation and support,” he told Paralympic.org.

But there’s much more to this than just pure technicality.

Football is at the heart of the country and is the nation's favourite pastime. Many Brazilians – both able-bodied or even those with impairment - have been playing the sport since they were young, developing brilliant ball skills despite the lack of having football pitches to play on.

The streets, then become a training ground for future Olympians and elite athletes to play top level football, and for Paralympians to play football 5-a-side.

Ricardo 'Richardinho' Alves - the captain of the Brazilian squad - thought that when he lost his sight at age eight, that his dreams of playing football would be over.

However, with the help of his elementary teacher and first coach, Mr Dodo, he discovered that he could play football in a different way.

"When I found out that I had a chance to play football again, my heart became full of hope and joy," Ricardinho said in the WHO I AM Paralympic documentary series back in 2016.

"I was able to get back to my childhood dream and pursue it," he added.

"If he hadn't lost his sight, he wouldn't be the athlete he is today," Mr Dodo, his elementary school teacher said.

Football 5-a-side has given hope to Brazilian athletes like Ricardinho to play football and compete in the world stage.

Jefinho of Brazil celebrates a scored goal by Ricardinho during the football 5-a-side - Brazil and Iran Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
Jefinho of Brazil celebrates a scored goal by Ricardinho during the football 5-a-side - Brazil and Iran Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

The country of football

Football 5-a-side has started in Brazil in the 1960s, and held their first national tournament 1974. With decades to develop the sport coupled with vast resources of talent in the country, the world saw Brazil's unstoppable rise as the most formidable team in the Paralympic sport.

While football remains to be the most popular sport in the country, the success of the Brazilian squad in the past four Paralympics has become a source of national pride.

As proof of the popularity of the sport in Brazil, players like Ricardinho and Jefinho, are now considered superstars and they can hardly walk about in the streets without being recognised by the public.

Jefinho, who was born with glaucoma and was visually impaired from the age of seven, is also called the Paralympic Pele for his similar playing style with the football legend. And just like Jefinho and Richardinho, the rest of the Brazilian squad are known for their incredible skill and athleticism similarly to their Olympic counterparts.

However, the Paralympians can do something that ordinary able-bodied athletes are unable to do.They can play football with blindfolds on.

In fact, football 5-a-side is technically a very demanding sport because it requires athletes with vision impairment to play with eye patches. There are three sighted guides to give instructions to the athletes before they go inside their third of the pitch. Once on court, they must pass, tackle and shoot by relying on the sound of the ball and the voice of their guide.

And this complexity only proves that what the Brazilian squad have accomplished was no easy feat. By winning four Paralympic golds, they are deservedly the undisputed kings of the sport.

One other thing that their success is doing is providing hope and inspiration not only for Brazilians but for many others, to change attitudes and perceptions towards people with impairment.

Moreover, the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games was called the people's Games as the people of Rio came out in droves to support Para athletes from around the world. Brazil and Mexico are just two of the South American countries were the Paralympic Movement have a big following.

Brazil fights for the ball during the Football 5-a-side - Brazil and Iran Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
Brazil fights for the ball during the Football 5-a-side - Brazil and Iran Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Best Paralympic moments of the Brazilian squad

In Athens 2004, Brazil faced their fiercest rivals Argentina in the final. Two years prior, Argentina beat them in the World Cup and the Brazilian squad were bent on snatching the crown from their opponents. Brazil won following a 3-2 win on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

Four years later in Beijing, they smashed their opponent People's Republic of China, which was the host country of the Games. Any squad would have buckled if they were to play against the host country but not Brazil.

In London 2012, they defeated France 2-0 with stunning performances from their superstar players.

But Rio 2016 was even a sweeter victory as they played on their home turf in front of their countrymen. In the finals, Brazil bested Asian champions Iran 1-0, winning just seven seconds before the end of the match.

Winning gold at Rio was a huge accomplishment for the Brazilian squad, but there was nothing better than receiving the accolade from the home crowd, especially as the Games were held also in their nation.

With Brazil dominating the sport for many years, all eyes are on them to make a repeat of their previous victories. Fortunately, they have one more year to prepare to clinch another Paralympic glory in Tokyo 2020.

Will they face their strongest rival Argentina again next year?

As for Jefinho, who played a key role in the team's previous successes, Tokyo 2020 "began four years ago, when we finished our participation at Rio 2016".

Football 5-a-side highlights - Rio 2016 Paralympic Games