Julian Luna still remembers the day a neighbor told him about an amputee soccer team in Mexico City called the Guerreros Aztecas and asked him if he´d be interested in coming to practice.
Luna, who lost his leg due to a soccer-related injury in his home country of Colombia, had a somewhat predictable answer.
“It was eternal waiting for the day that I could go back to playing,” says Luna, who is now a forward for Guerreros Aztecas, a soccer team that forms part of the Amputee Football Association of Mexico.
Amputee soccer was first played competitively in the U.S. in the 1980s and later adopted by countries around the world, including Mexico.
The rules, which closely resemble those of the standard game, have a few key differences: Outfielders can have two hands but only one foot, while goalies can have two legs but only one hand. According to the World Amputee Football Federation, metal crutches are also not allowed to be used to advance or direct the ball.
The rules dictate play around the world, and n the Mexico league, which is comprised of roughly 200 players and 13 teams— including the Guerreros Aztecas.
Omar Espinosa saw a local newscast about the team after it was founded in 2013 and wanted to help. Espinosa and his brother, Carlos, eventually found themselves volunteering as the goalkeeper and midfield coaches, and have since recruited players and designed drills for the team by watching videos on YouTube. One of the key things they train new players to do is gain the confidence to sprint across a field on their crutches.
“It´s about overcoming your fear,” Espinosa explains.
Thanks largely to efforts like theirs, there are now 17 players on the team up from six only four years ago. And the Aztecas are getting better. When the team played their first match against a northern Mexico-based team known as Tigres, they lost in a 10-0 blowout. This season, the Guerreros Aztecas finished third in final standings, losing just 2-0 to the Tigres in the semifinal match.
“We want to be champions,” says Espinosa.
“We want to be champions.”
The team’s standings have put it in a strong position for the Amputee Football World Cup qualification round in March, when up to four players from each Mexican team will be chosen to form the national selection that competes in Jalisco, Mexico in August 2018.
An estimated 28 teams from around the world are expected to participate in the tournament, up from about 20 when the last World Cup was held in 2014.
At a recent practice, the Guerreros Aztecas prepared for the qualification round with aerobics, drills, and a 12-man scrimmage. Dressed in multi-colored jerseys, they fanned across the field, raising themselves up0n their crutches before flinging themselves counter-gravitationally into the air to kick the ball.
One player received a pass with his chest and stumbled backward from the ball’s force. Then, he found his balance and continued running on the pitch.
Victor Hugo, a defensive player who was one of the two Guerrero Azteca players chosen to be part of Mexico´s World Cup team in 2014, gulped down water in between a play.
“Coming here after an amputation is like being able to live again,” he says, wearing a pink jersey with a large number “2” on the back.
The players on Guerreros Aztecas all have their own stories. One player known as Toro had an amputation after he was thrown off a bull and was gored by its horn. Then there’s Rey David Angeles, the goalie, who liked to give his cat leftovers from his uncle’s butcher shop and had his arm amputated after it got caught in the meat slicer.
But what ultimately unites them all isn’t the fact that they are missing limbs. It’s their love of the game.
“I like soccer. I like to watch it, play it. It’s not just my passion, it calms me,” says Hugo, who earns his living by performing soccer tricks at traffic intersections in Mexico City during the day.
“A lot of people who join the team say, ‘I played for years, but even though this happened to me, I want to keep playing,” says Espinosa.
The Guerreros’ biggest difficulties, Espinosa explains, are those common to many sports teams: gathering finances and finding fields.
For now, local congressman Raul Flores has helped sponsor the team, while others have loaned it fields to practice on and even donated uniforms..
As for Espinosa, the Guerreros Aztecas are a passion project for him.
“Finding this team has been a lesson about life,” he said. “Disability is all in your mind.”