Gabriel just wants to play

September 4, 2012

By Ricardo Moraes

What would people say if I told them that I met a footless boy who plays football? (Of course, since I’m talking about Brazil, football is really soccer.) I don’t think even my family or closest friends would believe me. Luckily, I’m a photographer and can show them. The beautiful part of this story is not just that Gabriel plays football without feet, but that he plays incredibly well.

Gabriel Muniz, an 11-year-old boy born with malformed feet, grew up like most Brazilian children with a soccer ball by his side.

Gabriel became famous after he was featured on a TV sports program. Those scenes of him demonstrating great skill with the ball hadn’t left my mind, so I was excited about the opportunity to photograph him. But while on the road to Campos do Goytacazes, where Gabriel lives, I kept thinking that maybe the TV show had been overproduced and that he couldn’t really be THAT good.

SLIDESHOW: FOOTLESS SOCCER PLAYER

We reached the city a day ahead of schedule and passed by Gabriel’s school where we spotted him playing soccer with friends. From there we went to his home where his mother agreed to see us even though we were a day early. Gabriel eventually arrived home after school and greeted us shyly, but by the time he did his homework, played video games, and had a snack, it was too late for him to play soccer for us.

The next day we returned before he awoke, and followed his first steps of the day. His mother gave him prostheses to wear, which surprised us, but she said he should go to school with them on.

At school we noticed he was very popular, but we were also surprised to learn that a teacher had suspended him from school for two days for failing to hand in his homework.

He showed up in spite of that because the principal had a talk with his teacher, and he was allowed to come in for part of the day.

Contrary to the suspension, the principal presented Gabriel with a new pair of socks, which he normally wears as shoes when he’s not using the prostheses. She told us that Gabriel is a good student, with the only problem being how to get him off the soccer field and into the classroom. “He wants to play soccer all the time,” she said.

Then came the magical moment of our visit. Gabriel left the classroom and went onto the field to join a soccer match. He was amazing. He was fast, showed excellent game foresight, passed well and dribbled skillfully. The only real difficulties came from playing with older, bigger kids, but his skill was obvious. It also became obvious that his fellow players treated him as an equal, with no mercy.

Gabriel likes to play as striker, midfielder and left defender. He was the top scorer in tournaments he played with the school team. He dreams like many boys of meeting Argentina’s soccer star Lionel Messi, and playing alongside him for Barcelona FC.

Recently Gabriel was invited to train at a football school that Barcelona FC has in Saquarema, west of Rio. His school coach told us that he’s been invited to visit the club’s headquarters in Spain, but his mother didn’t want to talk openly of the matter to avoiding spoiling his chances.

In spite of all his talent, I don’t know what opportunities await Gabriel. I do know that it would be incredible to see him in action in the greater world of football, in spite of the obvious difficulties. Unfortunately there isn’t a Paralympic category for players with malformed limbs, only for the visually impaired. But if there were, Gabriel would be a candidate for the Olympic gold that Brazilian football has yet to conquest.

In Brazil, when we see a talented new player, we say that “he has the ball.” Gabriel loves football, and although he doesn’t have the foot, he certainly “has the ball.”

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