Soccer on one leg carries crutches and a lot of heart

Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.

MEXICO CITY -- On a recent sunny afternoon, Hugo Carabes prepared for a training session with the Guerreros Aztecas (Aztec Warriors), the amputee soccer club that welcomed him after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident.

"I might not be Messi, but I can show you things that not many people can do with just one leg," said Carabes while planting one of his crutches on the pitch.

Under Guerreros manager Ernesto Lino’s watchful eye, Carabes and the rest of the players warmed up prior to playing a friendly against a local school. Recognized as the team’s best player, Carabes played defense for Necaxa’s farm team, one of Liga MX’s most popular clubs.

“I am sure that Hugo will put on quite a show, as always," said Lino as his players circled the historic Agustín Melgar stadium, the velodrome that hosted cycling at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Teammate Miguel Angel Tapia, sporting the Warriors phosphorescent green anxiously awaited the opening whistle of the match.

"Soccer practice keeps us busy. Hugo and I both really enjoy this, and seeing people like him inspires all of us to turn out and helps us to forget the loss of a leg," said Tapia, who lost his right leg in a car accident. “I come and train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a respite for me. I have been unemployed for a year and a half. We are lost here in Mexico, and soccer is what gives me the will to go on."

Tapia plays forward and said he is his team's "Ronaldo". He has plenty of style and technique, and he dedicates his goals to his wife and daughter.

The Guerreros Aztecas formed in 2013, as one of 13 squads in the Liga Mexicana de Fútbol para Amputados (Mexican Amputee Soccer League or LMFA), with clubs located in Nuevo León, Jalisco and Sinaloa as well as the capital city. Various tournaments lead to a national championship match and on an international scale, Mexico competes in a Copa América and in the Mundial de Fútbol para Amputados, a World Cup.

“Our exercises are different from what you would see in conventional soccer. We learn how to fall on one leg to prevent injuries," explained Carabes, who amazes fans by bouncing the ball in the air up to 20 times with his only leg, not letting it fall to the ground.

The only requirement for acceptance on the team is to have lost a limb. Guerreros goalkeeper Israel Flores was born without one arm, and Carabes helps him tie his shoes prior to practice.

"I never leave the goal, and before playing I always do my pushups, squats and warm-ups. I'm ready at all times," assured Flores, who works in the government's Rights Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

"The dream of being able to get them onto the field of play has its rewards. There are a lot of similarities with 'regular' soccer, but the rules for amputees are different. We are constantly coming up with new exercises that they can do with only one leg," said manager Lino, who played in the reserves for first division club Atlante. He affectionately calls his players ‘incomplete heroes.’

Rules are similar to 7-person soccer, with a goalie, two defenders, two midfielders and a pair of forwards. The ball cannot be touched with crutches.

On the pitch, the "Lady Warrior", Karina Torres, receives plenty of attention as the only woman on the team and one of the few playing in the league. Torres lost a leg in an auto accident and decided to join the team for reasons that go beyond mere sports.

"I have a 3-year-old son, and I have to be strong. In Mexico, soccer is traditionally a man's game, and so coming to these games is my way of representing the best of my gender, of giving the best that I have, for me and my baby," she said.

During the first half of the match, one playmaker stands out: Luis Campos, who took a bullet in one of life's terrible twists of fate, leaving him disabled at an early age.

"I never took wrong turns in life, but today I am experiencing my best years," he said, while surveying the field through a light rain. "Nothing can stop us, we are the Guerreros Aztecas, and we are going to show right here and now what we are made of."

The team competed in the Amputee World Cup in 2014, and even though they did not claim the title at the event held in Mexico, they benefited greatly from being the host team, as squads from other parts of the world came to teach them techniques for overcoming setbacks and perfecting the sport that brought them back from oblivion: a sport that forces them to leave their prostheses on the sideline and give it their all on the field of play.

“This is a new life for him. We lost everything but we never lost hope,” said wife Brenda Carabes. “He saw his life slipping away, he fell into a deep depression, and being able to come back to the playing field is what saved him."

Carabes did not disappoint. He went on to score a hat-trick in the Guerreros' victory over the local school.

“This is the best opportunity that life has offered me, and not abandoning soccer is the best example that I can give to my daughters."