By Neil Davda, Grants Fundraiser, Signal.
Istanbul, Turkey, 25 May 2005. I’ve watched my fair share of football matches but this one was easily the pick – it was simply exhilarating. Even sat in my living room I felt part of something special. Like many others though, I’ve found myself growing increasingly disillusioned with the game of late. Controversy is rife and football has lost its way, at least in the top tier. At its roots it remains as pure as ever – as I discovered.
Ghona, Tanzania, 27 March 2015. I was there. The student football team from the Signal-backed Vocational Training Centre for the Deaf took on a local secondary school in their first official match, and it was a classic. The first thing I noticed was the stark contrast of the pitch to what I was accustomed to in England – it was level but had very little grass and the markings were etched into it.
The teams began to warm up and it was obvious these guys were athletes. Even in the baking afternoon sun their drills seemed effortless, and the leap on some of them would put Michael Jordan to shame. As kick-off drew near, the players posed for photographs and the referee explained some revisions to the rules with the help of sign language interpreter Jonathan.
The match would be 60 minutes (plenty long enough in that heat) and the referee was using a red flag to signify stoppages, instead of a whistle. In theory this was a great way to alert the deaf players. In practice no one noticed him, but this just fuelled the excitement further. The atmosphere was electric, unlike any other I’d experienced.
Half the supporters were deaf so there wasn’t much noise from the crowd. Instead every goal was celebrated with a pitch invasion – and they were abundant. It wasn’t all plain sailing. The ball inevitably got stuck in a tree, and at one point dust from the pitch shrouded the players from view.
There’s a common perception that Spanish football is technical, Italian football is tactical and English football is physical – well if that’s correct, I’d suggest Tanzanian football is mental. The unpredictable nature of every aspect of the game, from the bounce of the ball to the gusts of wind, meant the teams had to be razor sharp from start to finish.
For the deaf players this was compounded by the issue of communicating on the pitch. I certainly couldn’t imagine orchestrating a set piece without speaking. Regardless of these challenges, a first half hat-trick and a free kick David Beckham would be proud of had the Vocational Training Centre 4-0 up at the break, and firmly in the ascendancy. What followed was the most interesting team talk I’ve ever been part of.
It was given in Tanzanian Sign Language so I can’t be sure what was said but it certainly didn’t have the desired effect, and the second half saw that hard-earned lead crumble. The final score was 4-4.
This was never about the result though, no one really cared. It was about integrating these young deaf people into the local community, and letting them enjoy playing or watching the game. They love football and, unsurprisingly, all of them support teams in the English Premier League. Despite its flaws, this sport clearly has a global reach with the power to unite people in a shared language. That’s what really makes football the beautiful game.
This was just one day of fun but these students benefit from inclusion in sport through the year, and it doesn’t stop there – they’re also learning life skills that will help them find employment when they leave. For as little as £17 a month you could help support their learning, so if you can help us continue making a difference to these young deaf people, please visit our donation page. Thank you!