It’s the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games football semi-finals. The scoreboard reads China 1 – Brazil 0.
The Olympic Tennis Centre was a hive of people dressed in green and yellow, hoping for the men from the land of samba to rise to the occasion.
We are 18 minutes and 55 seconds into the first half when Jeferson da Conceição Gonçalves, popularly known as Jefinho, gets hold of the ball in three quarters of a field.
Jefinho, born with glaucoma and completely blind by age seven, makes a fine run before facing his first defender, makes a feint for the left side and filters down to the last line of resistance.
Jefinho then moves the ball from one foot to the other with as much speed as elegance. “One more!” Then he makes the diagonal and gets rid of the last opponent.
“Now shoot!” Jefinho delivers: goal. The first of the two he’ll score that day to get Brazil through to the final.
If the Brazilians were to talk about Jefinho, on the streets of hot Candeias, in the state of Bahia, they go at legnth about a little boy of five or six who used to do the same moves but barefeet and with a rag disguised as a ball.
Anything could become a ball during Jefinho’s childhood. While many a times, his mother would have to reprimand him for playing football inside the dining room, he would continue unabashedly until his mother would jump in to gather his attention.
Jefinho would then display his deft footwork to run around the table and between the chairs, but he wouldn’t let go of that ball for anything.
Nor did he let the ball go, in the Paralympic Games final against Iran. With seven seconds to go before the gold, Brazil won by the slightest of margins. They had a free kick in favour and the ball fell at his feet. The referee blows the whistle. It is gold, one more for Brazil.
“Playing football is when I feel at my best. I feel totally independent on the pitch and I can do whatever I want,” said Jefinho. His happiness is doing what he loves so much. Within the limits of that green rectangle, he sees everything.
WON EVERYTHING AND WANTS MORE
Jefinho is 30 years old and has played for the Brazilian national five-a-side team since he was 17. He has won gold in all the major titles he played: Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.
He has also claimed top honours at the World Championships in England 2010, Japan 2014 and Spain 2018. The endless number of awards is completed with continental and national trophies.
“The motivation is always wanting something more. Every competition has a different taste, it’s never the same as what happened. Of course, we celebrate every time we win a gold medal, but as soon as we finish we start thinking about what we have next. The past is over. History is there to be told and the intention is to continue writing more pages in it every year,” he added.
Having won everything in the yellow-green jersey, Jefinho is still as keen as ever to be the protagonist of great feats.
“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.
“We know we’re one of the best and most likely to win gold, but that doesn’t go to our heads. On the contrary, it leaves us even more willing to work to get on the pitch and show off our football.”
His preparation for Tokyo “began four years ago, when we finished our participation at Rio 2016.”
HIS IDOLS AND BEING AN EXAMPLE
The man many call the ‘Paralympic Pele’ had two great role models in football and was able to meet them both.
“I met Ronaldinho Gaúcho, one of the best in history. And within five-a-side football I like Mizael Conrado, now president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee.
When I was first called up to the national team, he was still a player. I reflected myself in those people and was able to fulfill my dream of representing my country across the world.
“I’m a professional athlete and that’s what I do 24 hours a day. In my free time, I have some hobbies, like music. I like both listening and playing; I play the keyboard. And I also work in my city’s prefecture,” he said.
“I did not go to college, but I plan to do something in the area of administration, finance, economy. Because of the hectic life of sport, it’s a bit unfeasible at the moment.”
He wants to share everything he has learned on and off the court to help the youth, children and adolescents of his city, so that they find a good path.
“For me, it’s wonderful to be an example for young people and children. It’s something I never imagined, but I feel very proud. It’s a sign that I’ve done a good job so far as a professional athlete.
“Sport teaches us many lessons that we carry into life itself. One of them is respect. You learn to respect those around you, to live in a group and that people are different from each other. We learn to win and lose, and that’s very important, because in life we also have victories and frustrations and we have to know how to deal with all those issues,” asserted Jefinho.
Having experienced it first-hand, Jefinho knows that football can be a great promoter of values and that, in Candeias or anywhere in Brazil or world over, there are children whose lives can be improved.
“Football, for me, is everything. Without football, I would not be who I am today. I am a better person thanks to the sport and I have what I have today thanks to football 5.”
EFFORT IS HIS SIXTH SENSE
“He seems to have a sixth sense, because he does not need to concentrate on his abilities. They’re just there,” former English captain Keryn Seal once said of Brazil’s No. 7.
For Jefinho, however, the question of controlling the ball is simply training.
Of course, we have acquired that since we are kids. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I started training in ball handling, passing, finishing. You practice all that very early on and you end up getting better. Because of my characteristics, I have developed some things more than others.”
In short, effort is his sixth sense. “I would like to be remembered as an athlete who gave his best, who tried hard, surpassed himself and managed to fulfill his dreams within the sport. I know that life itself is not easy, and thanks to hard work and dedication, one ends up winning. When I finish my career, I would like to be able to influence others to follow in this path and have served as an example to other 5-a-side players as well.”
By Santiago Menichelli for International Paralympic Committee