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Blind soccer player, 36, hopes to make comeback to Japan squad

Daisuke Fukumoto, right, approaches the ball during practice with a teammate of the Osaka Daibans Blindfootball Club, in Osaka's Asahi Ward. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- Inspired by Japan's veteran squad at the recent soccer World Cup in Russia, a 36-year-old player for Osaka's only blind soccer team is hoping to make a comeback and don the national jersey once more.

Daisuke Fukumoto, 36, plays for Osaka Daibans Blindfootball Club. He says he was inspired by the Samurai Blue's performance at the World Cup, where the advanced age of the players resulted in them being dubbed "Ossan (old man) Japan."

In mid-June after the World Cup had begun, Fukumoto was training at a court in Osaka's Asahi Ward, wearing an eye mask and chasing after a special ball with a bell inside. With his right foot, he took numerous shots at goal.

"I want to be active on the world stage again," he said.

Fukumoto was born without vision in his right eye, and had weak vision in his left eye. After graduating from high school, he became totally blind, partly due to glaucoma. At a point in his life when he wondered if there was meaning in living any more, a friend at a rehabilitation facility where he was learning Braille recommended that he give blind soccer a go. He was skeptical about playing, asking, "How are you meant to do that without seeing?" But after he started, a fighting spirit welled up inside him, spurred by the frustration of not being able to control the ball well.

Fukumoto's unrefined, full-on play, battling for the ball, gradually captured attention, and in 2003 he was chosen to represent Japan as a midfielder. He played in the world championship in Argentina in 2006 and helped set up a goal, but he has been off the national squad for close to 10 years now.

The Japan Blind Football Association says there are about 450 blind soccer players in Japan. National squad members are chosen from among about 20 teams in the country that compete mainly in regional leagues. In recent years, young players have risen to the fore. Fukumoto realizes that making a comeback is no easy task, but he still holds hope ahead of the Paralympic Games to be held in Tokyo in the summer of 2020.

He was particularly inspired by the Samurai Blue making it to the round of 16 during the World Cup. The average age of the players on the team was 28.3, the highest in Japan's five most recent World Cup appearances, but goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, 35, and 34-year-old midfielder Makoto Hasebe still pulled the team along, and the Samurai Blue even managed to initially take the lead in their match against soccer powerhouse Belgium.

"I was excited by the performance of veterans in the World Cup," said Fukumoto, who practices blind soccer virtually every week while teaching acupuncture and moxibustion at a school for the visually impaired. "I want to put my ability to make judgments based on experience to practical use, and contribute to the national team once again."

Sport profile: Blind soccer

A blind football team consists of five players -- four players on the field who wear eye masks, and a goalkeeper who can see. Guides on the field known as "callers" issue instructions to the players. To avoid collisions, players are required to call out "Voy" when they go for the ball. Blind soccer became an official Paralympic sport at the Athens Games in 2004. A new international competition, the Blind Football World Grand Prix, has also been established, and was staged for the first time in Tokyo in March this year.

(Japanese original by Hayaki Takeda, Osaka City News Department)

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