On a damp and cold day in eastern China, Chen Shanyong wears a blindfold and surges forward on a soccer pitch, making a powerful volley as he perfectly dribbles the ball into the box.
For the 32-year-old Chen, taking a shot in the dark is like a walk in the park, as the star player of Jiangsu province's blind soccer team has been in "touch" with the sport for over 15 years.
Blind soccer is a five-a-side game with four outfield players who are visually impaired and a goalkeeper. It is played on a downsized rectangular field surrounded by rebound panels, where the players wear eyeshades to ensure the competition is on equal terms.
China has the largest number of blind people in the world, with the number exceeding 17 million, and most of them are trained and employed in massage parlors.
"Soccer has brought us another world, where we can chase our dreams," said Chen, who is completely blind since birth.
CHASE THE LIGHT
Chen lived his childhood in the Nantong Special Education Center, a school designed for disabled teenagers in the city of Nantong, and he was often seen sitting melancholically alone near the playground in a daze.
"Some sighted kids love playing soccer, using plastic bags to wrap the ball so it rattles when it moves, and I joined them out of curiosity," Chen said. "Soccer then became my biggest joy in life."
In 2005, China began to introduce blind soccer nationwide and Jiangsu set up its first blind soccer team in Nantong that year. Chen, diligent and skillful, was successfully enrolled in the first batch of players of the Jiangsu team.
"We can only hear, touch and rely on our coach in training," he said, adding that they would learn a move by dividing it into several parts. "The act of shooting, for instance, can take a blind player ten days or even half a month to master."
Chen and his teammates also practice distinguishing sounds, as the ball contains loose ball-bearings so that blind players can hear where it is, and they need shout before attempting to make a tackle.
The chances of a blind player getting injured are much higher. Chen broke his nose three times, lost a tooth and has suffered rib and ankle factures.
"I never regret it. It's all about love and passion, and you didn't feel any pain," Chen said.
With great enthusiasm and hard work, the Jiangsu blind soccer team won the national blind soccer championship in the first year and defended their crown the next year. Forward Chen scored 15 goals personally, nearly half of the team's points in the two tournaments.
Chen was elected into Chinese national blind soccer team in 2007 and helped his team obtain the silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.
SOCCER IS OUR VISION
Chen hesitated to join the national squad in 2007 when he graduated from the school, as he was caught between the unknown future of playing soccer and being a masseur to earn a living.
"Don't think too much when you are young. Set your minds on what you love and go for it. Don't give up without a try," Chen recalled what his mother told him afterwards, which gave him strength all the way.
Because of blind soccer, Chen had chances to go outside of Nantong and Jiangsu, and to go abroad by plane for the first time, making friends from all over the world.
"If I don't play soccer, I might stay in my hometown for my whole life, and get fat," he grinned, saying thanks to the sport, he can travel far and have more possibilities in his life.
"The lives of the blind should not be limited, and the soccer team gives us a stage to show ourselves," said Chen Kaihua, Chen's teammate of on the Jiangsu team, a 26-year-old forward who had both eyes extracted due to an illness.
Chen Kaihua owns a massage shop in Nantong but he often suspends his massage business for several months for team training if they are scheduled to play a game, giving up all his regular customers.
"Being part of the team gives us added self-worth and an escape from the routines in the massage trade," Chen Kaihua said.
"Soccer is our vision and it shows us the beauty of the world," he added.
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