Ahead of World Cup, amputee soccer teams compete in Ecuador

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The players race down the field chasing a soccer ball and trying to kick it into their opponents' goal. Unlike most soccer players the world over, many of these athletes compete while using crutches. Others are missing arms.

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In this June 10, 2018 photo, Rodrigo Ramirez, right, of El Empalme team, controls the ball next to Wilson Tianga, of Android team, during the final game at the national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. It's the South American nation's second amputee soccer tournament, even though the country's national team didn't qualify for the FIFA World Cup beginning this month in Russia. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


The action came in Ecuador's just-completed second soccer tournament for amputees, and even though the country's national team didn't qualify for the World Cup beginning this month in Russia, the enthusiasm of players and fans alike was contagious.

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In this June 10, 2018 photo, a young fan of the El Empalme team stands with players after they won the the national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. "I want to show the world I can be the Messi of the amputees," said Holger Velez, 28, a player for El Empalme. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


Six teams comprising a total of 72 players, including two women, competed in the tournament, which was won by a local Quito team, Android.

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In this June 10, 2018 photo, Android team players celebrate winning the national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. While the one-legged game is just taking off in Ecuador, it's getting a big boost from the country's president, Lenin Moreno, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic who was a major force for the rights of the disabled around the world as the United Nations' envoy on disability and accessibility in Geneva, Switzerland between 2013 and 2016. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


One of the competitors was Jhonatan Chico, a 30-year-old who lost his leg a decade ago in a traffic accident and plays for the Quinsaloma team.

He said he began playing soccer a year ago. A team fields just seven players at a time, so Chico has the dual role of forward and defender. "When we're so few on the field, we all have to do a little bit of everything," he said with a laugh.

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In this June 10, 2018 photo, Blas Ruiz falls on the pitch after he was fouled by the El Empalme team during a national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. Some of the players competing at the tournament in Ecuador are hoping to be selected for a national team that will compete in the 15th World Amputee Football Federation's World Cup taking place later this year in Guadalajara, Mexico. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


More seriously, Chico said, "Although what's most important is to kick the ball, and kick it strongly, we play with our hearts, out of a love for sport and to overcome our own limitations."

Soccer for amputees was started in the early 1980s by Don Bennett, an active sportsman from Seattle who lost a leg in a boating accident, the American Amputee Soccer Association says. The first international tournament was held in Bennett's hometown in 1984, and the game is now played in 40 countries.

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In this June 9, 2018 photo, David Arguello of the Android soccer club controls the ball while balancing himself with crutches, at a match against Fuerzas Armadas during a national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. One-legged soccer was started in the early 1980s by Don Bennett, an active sportsman from Seattle who lost his leg in a boating accident, according to the American Amputee Soccer Association. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


The amputee game is just taking off in Ecuador, and it has gotten a big boost from the country's president, Lenin Moreno, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair and was a major force for the rights of the disabled around the world while service as the United Nations' envoy on disability and accessibility in 2013-2016.

Some of the players who competed at the tournament in Quito are hoping to be selected for a national team that will compete in the 15th World Amputee Football Federation's World Cup being held later this year in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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In this June 9, 2018 photo, Juan Moran, of El Empalme team, celebrates his team's victory over Fuerzas Armadas and classifying to the next round of the national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. While the one-legged game is just taking off in Ecuador, it's getting a big boost from the country's president, Lenin Moreno, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic who was a major force for the rights of the disabled around the world as the United Nations' envoy on disability and accessibility in Geneva, Switzerland between 2013 and 2016. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)


"I want to show the world I can be the Messi of the amputees," said a smiling Holger Velez, 28, the playmaker for El Empalme.

Edin Carrion, 23, came from a town in the Amazon to play goalkeeper for Guerreros. He lost part of his left arm four years ago after suffering an electric shock.

"It's hard to play with a single arm. I have to bandage up what remains to comply with the rules," he said. "But when you're passionate about soccer you'll do whatever it takes."

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In this June 10, 2018 photo, Android soccer team members leave behind their crutches to celebrate winning the championship title of the national soccer tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. Some of the players competing at the tournament in Ecuador are hoping to be selected for a national team that will compete in the 15th World Amputee Football Federation's World Cup taking place later this year in Guadalajara, Mexico. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

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In this June 10 photo, members of the Android soccer team celebrate with their trophy after winning the championship game of a national tournament for players with amputated limbs, in Quito, Ecuador. One-legged soccer was started in the early 1980s in Seattle and today is played in 40 countries around the world. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)