The disabled freestyle footballer wowing World Cup fans

Juanro Aguiló spinning a football with his fused fingers near Education City Stadium on Saturday, December 10, 2022 [Umer Naseef Ali]

Juanro Aguiló was born with only one, incomplete arm. Today he’s an ace freestyle footballer and motivational speaker.

Doha, Qatar – Juanro Aguiló spun a football with the fused fingers on his right hand as he came out of a Qatar Foundation building near Education City Stadium.

Fans walked to the stadium along the barricaded pathways in front of the building, occasionally glancing at Aguiló’s tricks with the Al Rihla — the World Cup’s official football. 

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Fifteen minutes later, he took to a stage across the barricade, with Laura, a Venezuelan athlete, as more of the fans pouring into the stadium stopped by and cheered, wowed by their freestyle football moves — a combination of juggling, dance, and acrobatics.

At stadiums around Qatar, the biggest names in the sport have mesmerised the world over the past three weeks at football’s showpiece event. But at a World Cup whose motto is “Now is all”, this was Aguiló’s moment — one which captured the essence of the skills and joy that make football the “beautiful game”.

Aguiló was born in 1985 in Santiago, Chile, with a rare condition called phocomelia, which caused an underdeveloped right arm and a missing left arm. “I started juggling the ball when I was seven,” he told Al Jazeera. But at the time, he did not know that what he was doing just for kicks was part of a sport played by both football legends and non-footballers.

Looking for a better future for Aguiló and his younger sister, his civil engineer father and school teacher mother moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1997. Two years later, the father got a new job in Miami, US, and the family moved there. They stayed in Miami until 2001.

It was during those teenage years as a frequent exile that Aguiló — who once wanted to take up taekwondo but stayed away because of his inability to block kicks with his one, underdeveloped arm — truly discovered freestyle football. It was a sport he could practice alone in a limited space.

“A friend and I downloaded [former Brazil star] Ronaldinho’s freestyle videos from some pirate websites, and we watched them a lot before training ourselves to get motivated,” he recalled. Then in 2007, Aguiló participated in a freestyle football competition in Chile, an opportunity that introduced him to others practising the sport.

The crowd watch Juanro Aguiló performing near Education City Stadium Photo Umer Naseef Ali 3
Fans watching Aguiló perform near Education City Stadium on Saturday, December 10, 2022 [Umer Naseef Ali]

While his motivations have changed over time, “the main one was trying to find my limits and to push boundaries; to be a better athlete but importantly a better person.” The sport gave him “perseverance, dedication and discipline”, the qualities “you can use not only in sports but in relationships, work, and life,” he said. “I’m happy I discovered this sport at a young age.”

Success in freestyle gave Aguiló the confidence to become more outgoing — he has always been “really koo koo koo koorious [curious],” he said, giggling.

Today, he’s also a popular motivational speaker. As with football, he did it the hard way through dogged practice. Aguiló said he spent weeks on YouTube analysing what clicked for top motivational speakers — their style, entry onstage, delivery of jokes, use of silence, speech length and finishing lines “until I discovered the winning formula.”

He has now shared lessons from his life in nine countries. When he visits schools to talk to young children, he “brings the ball in the middle of the talk as a surprise”. Then, he showcases his freestyle skills “to encourage them to face life without fear”.

Aguiló, who lives in Matanzas — a village in central Chile — with his wife Consu, now practices freestyle football every other day for two hours. “That’s enough for me. I did more in the past.”

Though he himself does not struggle much with mobility, Aguiló said he had been impressed by the sight of people in wheelchairs getting “good access to the city and stadiums” in Qatar.

That’s not something people with disabilities can take for granted, he said. “In some countries, people are unhelpful to the disabled; they just invisibilise them,” he said.

In Doha, though, Aguiló has a ready audience — half an hour after his street performance, he was back inside the building, sweaty, and making a small crowd of Qatar Federation officials smile and laugh with his tricks.

Juanro Aguiló performing near Education City Stadium Photo Umer Naseef Ali 20
Aguiló performing near Education City Stadium on Saturday, December 10, 2022 [Umer Naseef Ali]

When an Al Jazeera video journalist asked him to look at the camera, he distorted his facial muscles to grimace, glower and pout to offer a range of available expressions. Seconds later, though, he was back to business with the ball — it is what he knows best.

Aguiló, who has delivered a TED talk titled Dare to be Different, said his main message to those who follow his freelance football or message is to embrace diversity and stay unique.

“Be happy with what you have and look at the bright side of life, and always try to expand good habits, because good habits get replicated,” he said. “Money can help, but in the end, it’s all about attitude.”



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