BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Valentino is a fan of the River Plate soccer club who dreams of dodging down the field like Argentine star Lionel Messi. Adrian wants to score goals like his hero, former Boca Juniors standout Martin Palermo. Eugenia and Sofia just want to have fun with the ball.
All four must use joysticks to get around in motorized wheelchairs, but they're still getting a taste of their dreams. They're among the 50 or so youngsters who recently began playing Powerchair Football in Buenos Aires.
The sport, which began in France in 1978 and now has active leagues in the United States, has finally reached football-mad Argentina, providing an enjoyable outlet for quadriplegics and others who can't walk because of multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, paralysis or spinal cord injuries.
Playing four-on-four on spaces the size of basketball courts, they use special front fenders on their chairs to maneuver a ball twice the size of normal soccer balls.
Mariano Rozenberg, a coach and executive director of the Powerchair Football Argentina foundation, said the game has been the first opportunity for these youngsters to get off the sidelines.
"They are kids who are passionate for the sport, who before would follow along and watch their siblings or cousins play football, field hockey or rugby. Now we're going to another dimension. Now they're the ones who are playing. They're protagonists. They're athletes," Rozenberg said.
"Go for it Sofi. Watch the ball!" Rozenberg patiently tells Sofia Sarina, an 11-year-old who has been in a wheelchair since she was deprived of oxygen at birth. She takes a few seconds, then moves the joystick with two fingers and rolls forward, hitting the ball, which rolls very slowly through two plastic cones.
"Golazo!" shouts the coach, prompting wide smiles from the girl and her parents, watching from the sidelines of a municipal gym.
Lorena Lardizabal, president of the foundation, discovered Powerchair Football when she and her husband attended a conference in the United States on muscular spinal atrophy, the condition that has hobbled their 8-year-old son, Valentino Zegarelli, who is a huge soccer fan.
The game has rules similar to conventional soccer, including fouls, corner kicks and goal kicks. But it has some elements unique to Powerchair: ganging up two-on-one is a foul, and banging chairs against each other also will draw a whistle from the referee.
Players must be at least 6 years old and have enough cognitive capacity to understand the rules.
The organizers don't charge for families to participate, enabling kids from different social classes to join. The foundation is trying to raise enough money so it can have 80 players by year's end, and it hopes to one day spread across Argentina.
Valentino practices twice a week, followed by informal games with his new friends. He eagerly chases the ball, and gets angry when a foul is called on him, although his smile quickly returns when a teammate scores.
"I would love to be like 'the Flea,'" he said, referring to Messi by his nickname. "He's fun, and he really kicks the ball well."
Word spread about Powerchair Football in Argentina after Valentino met Messi in person and they briefly passed a ball back and forth. Messi's own foundation uploaded a video of their encounter that has been viewed more than 130,000 times on YouTube.
Lardizabal says sport has really improved her son's life.
"Valentino has been able to meet other kids with his condition. Sometimes they think they're the only ones, that these things have happened only to them. Getting together with so many kids here has really helped him see that there are cases better and worse than his. This understanding has enriched and strengthened him."
Adrian Parma, 15, born with spina bifida, has been to Boca's famous Bombonera stadium several times, cheering Palermo's goals, and is a crack video game player. But nothing compares to the happiness he feels at scoring his own goals — a scene that draws tears to the eyes of his family.
"Since he began coming here he's no longer withdrawn. Here, they feel important and are inspired to live," said Adrian's father, Raul Parma.