Fort Worth resident Ricardo Castaneda loves playing soccer. The sport gives him a sense of freedom – and a rush of adrenaline, nervousness and excitement.

On a recent hot, sunny Saturday morning, Ricardo made quick, multiple taps as he dribbled the ball across the field, keeping it close to his feet. The ball jingled with every touch. His type of soccer requires more listening than seeing. 

That’s because Ricardo is blind, playing a sport called blind soccer. And not only does he play the sport for fun, he aims to represent the U.S. and compete at the international level.

Ricardo, who turns 22 on July 20, is one of the 12 athletes who recently gathered in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for a blind soccer tryout camp, organized by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. The three-day camp sought to identify talents to build the first national blind soccer team, which will be formed in October. 

Ricardo scored a goal during the camp and felt good about his performance.

“I feel confident in my ability to play the sport at a high level as a Paralympian,” he said.

Katie Smith is one of the soccer coaches who attended the tryout camp. Smith took notice of Ricardo’s performance and recognized the familiar face. Ricardo’s understanding of the game and his dribbling skill have improved immensely over the past years, she said.

“He has truly grown since I saw him in 2018. And his skills have just really immense potential,” Smith said.

A growing sport

The formation of the national team is the first step of the journey to bring the sport onto the world stage. The national team will have its first international match in December in Guatemala at the International Blind Sports Federation’s Blind Football Central American Championships

In January, the U.S Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes as the governing entity for blind soccer. The national team will not take part in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games, as the team is still in its infancy. But the team will make its debut in Los Angeles for the 2028 Paralympic Games

Bill Kellick is the communications manager for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. Blind soccer is still foreign to many people in the U.S., Kellick said.

“When you say (blind soccer), immediately people are like, ‘OK, I know soccer, but how the heck is this played blind?’” Kellick said. 

The association currently has two main missions: Educate and raise awareness about the sport; and build a world-class team. 

The association recently held a summit in Virginia for physical education teachers of visually impaired students to introduce them to blind soccer. The goal is for the teachers to take that knowledge about the sport and bring it back to their respective schools, Kellick said.

“We want to have a team that’s ready to compete with Brazil, which has won every gold medal (in the Paralympics) so far,” he said. 

How blind soccer works
Each game lasts 40 minutes and is divided into half. Each team consists of five players, including the goalkeeper. The game is played in an enclosed pitch surrounded by boards.

The four players on the field must wear blindfolds to ensure fairness, even though they are completely blind. The goalkeeper can be sighted or partially sighted and must stay within a confined area by the goal post.

 The ball must contain bells or other sound systems that make noise when the ball is moving. Besides the sound of the ball, the four players receive instructions from their goalkeepers, a coach at mid-sideline and another coach from behind the opponent’s goal post to let them know where to score. Fans must stay quiet throughout the game, but they are allowed to cheer when a player scores.

The sport made its premiere at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. The International Blind Sports Federation has governed blind soccer since 1996, before the sport stepped on the Paralympic stage.

But for some, blind soccer is more than just a sport. Blind soccer gives once-sighted soccer players an opportunity to continue their passion. Many blind soccer athletes played regular soccer when they could still see, Kellick said, but they stopped when their eyesight deteriorated. Ricardo is one of them.

An athlete at heart

Ricardo was not born blind. He could see well until he was 4, when he was diagnosed with pars planitis, an eye disease that causes inflammation. The disease may prompt blurred vision and progressive vision loss. 

Ricardo’s vision deteriorated as he aged. First, he tripped over bumps and tree limbs on the road. When he was 8 and still able to see, he went on the field to play indoor soccer. But he ran into a plexiglass door that he thought was open and was pulled out of the game.

The incident, however, did not stop him from playing soccer. He continued to play whenever he could. He became half blind at 11. 

Doctors warned Ricardo that he could hasten the process of going completely blind if he continued playing sports. Besides soccer, he also played football. Players in both sports often have to physically use their head to make plays — moves that can cause long-term brain damage. 

That didn’t matter to Ricardo.

“As a little kid, you don’t want to stay still. You want to be like other kids. You want to play ball,” he said.

He went on to attend high school at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin. During his freshman year at 15, he woke up one day and felt as if he was looking through a sandwich bag, he said. He went to school, nevertheless, thinking it was just another bad vision day.

He ran into three walls at school before he took out his cane, he said. Then he ran into a couple more poles after. He went to the school’s health center, and his mother eventually came for him. The family consulted a doctor that Friday and Ricardo underwent an emergency surgery the next day.

“I woke up that Saturday with no vision at all,” he said. “I felt darkness. And in a way, it was a blessing to me because then I didn’t have to take (injection) shots. I didn’t have to take pills. I didn’t have to take steroids. I didn’t have to have any more surgeries in my life again for my eyes.”

Ricardo has learned to live with blindness. But even after seven years, the disability still gets the best of him, sometimes. 

“Every once in a while when I hit my head on a corner of a wall or a cabinet … I break down and I have to calm myself and say, ‘This is my life now,’” Ricardo said. “There’s bumps in the road,  for sure. But you just have to pull through and know that everything’s going to be OK and just keep pushing.”

And being an athlete at heart, sports is one of the antidotes to Ricardo’s depression. He did wrestling, judo and triathlon. His love for physical activities eventually led him back to soccer, blind soccer this time, during a sports identification camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2017. And he’s been playing blind soccer ever since. 

But that’s not all Ricardo is doing. He’s also finishing up his associate degree in kinesiology with a minor in sports science at Tarrant County College’s Northwest Campus and plans to transfer to Texas State University, Texas Christian University or University of North Texas. Ultimately, he’s aiming to become an athletic therapist. 

“I’m a young man with aspirations and goals,” Ricardo said. “I’m just trying to survive this world like everybody else. I’m no different.” 

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at chongyang.zhang@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Chongyang Zhang

Chongyang Zhang graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2021. Previously, he worked for his school newspaper, The Shorthorn, for a year and a half.