More than a leg to stand on
Sao Paulo, Brazil
By Nacho Doce
Alexandre Toledo, age 36, plays soccer with his amateur team every Saturday in the fields around Sao Paulo. He’s one among 22 players on the pitch, but he’s the only one with just one leg.
Alexandre, a former professional player for a soccer club in Minas Gerais state, injured his left leg in 1996 in a motorcycle accident while vacationing on the coast. He struggled for a year to regain use of the limb, but in 1997, with the support of his father, he made the difficult decision to have it amputated.
“My father looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Alexandre, the decision is yours and it’s not an easy one. If you decide to amputate the leg I want you to lift your head up and get out and live your life. It’s no use hanging your head and crying over it just because you still have us, because we won’t be around forever.’”
I first met Alexandre via email, when I wrote to him asking for permission to photograph him playing. With soccer fever gripping Brazil as the World Cup approaches, I decided to accompany him to the outskirts of Sao Paulo over the course of several Saturdays. He would arrive on crutches with his son Gu, who always came to these matches with his dad.
When I saw Alexandre I thought it was going to be hard to watch him play, let alone photograph him; blocking goals with his disability couldn’t be easy. But today I laugh at myself for thinking that. The lesson that Alexandre taught me was that if you really want to do something, you can.
As I photographed him from behind the goal, I became his number one fan. Whenever he blocked a shot I would yell, “Great defense Alexandre!” He would never lose concentration and he spoke with his teammates to motivate them and guide their strategy. Watching him lunge for the ball on just one leg left me speechless.
At the matches, Alexandre and Gu would emerge last from the locker room onto the field to join the team in saying a prayer before kickoff.
Alexandre said that the greatest challenges are mental, not physical. He doesn’t care what rival players think about him with just one leg.
I asked him how he managed to go back to playing after losing the limb. With a big smile he said that after the accident a good friend asked him to go to the beach, where he was invited to join a soccer game. He tossed his prosthetic leg aside knowing that if he fell it would only be on sand. He hasn’t stopped playing since.
“I want everyone to know that my friends who gave me a chance and trusted me are part of my victory. It wouldn’t have worked for me simply to walk onto a soccer field with one leg and crutches and ask to play.”
He’s now been playing soccer on one leg for 17 years and receives recognition wherever he takes part in the sport. Children want to shake his hand and take a picture with him.
When he plays soccer with his son they take turns as goalie and kicker.
As I documented his story, what I saw was a team that fully trusts its goalie and holds him in enormous respect. The last match I saw was close to a favela that wasn’t necessarily dangerous, but certainly a place to be careful. In the first half Alexandre made a spectacular save. The screams from the rival fans were loud, but they were in praise of what they saw: “Wow, what a save!”
Alexandre gave them a thumbs up.
In the second half he made another great save, and I let out a “Wow!” from behind the goal. I was also pleased to have the picture in focus. My story was done.
At the end of the match a 17-year-old boy approached us and said, “When I first saw him walk onto the field with crutches I told myself that they would score 10 goals against him.” In the end Alexandre made two saves and the match ended 0-0. The boy said Alexandre was a model example for footballers and for all of us when it comes to overcoming an accident. “He shows how great soccer is in our country.”