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Hearing impaired football

It is the early morning of what will soon be another sweltering tropical day in Cartagena, Colombia. I watch as two local teams play a fairly competitive game of soccer. A heavy tackle leaves the tall and muscular 17 year old Cruz-Manuel sprawled on the dusty field, before he is helped to his feet by one of his team-mates. Tensions between the teams increase and yet not a single harsh word is spoken. When the match finishes, 2-1, the players shake hands with the opposing team and still neither a pleasantry nor an expletive has been exchanged. I've just watched the Club Estrellas Silencios notch a win against Club Simon Bolivar. Estrellas Silencios (The Silent Stars) is one of eighteen teams in Colombia's Youth Football League for the Deaf. The losing team Club Simon Bolivar are a normal hearing team. The Estrellas Silencios are a group of Under 18 year old boys who are all moderately to profoundly deaf, but they also happen to be very skilled football players. They practise and play just as hard as any of the teams but their quips and calls are signed not spoken and there is a

real feeling of camaraderie amongst these gifted players.

Estrellas Silencios was formed by Alberto Gomez, a Specialist Coach and a man passionate about his team. He volunteers his time to coach the team and treats the boys as if each was his own. His vision has always been to support and encourage the boys in their passion for the game, despite any restraints their handicaps may pose. The paternal role he plays in training his team goes beyond the final whistle as the boys regroup at Alberto's home for nutritional drinks, a review of the game and then some training videos. The majority of the boys come from poor and uneducated families. "This one was as skinny as a rake when I first met him. And now look at him" Alberto taunts as he thrusts a second glass of soy drink towards one of the boys.

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Alberto is now starting a second youth soccer team and he is also responsible for the basketball, baseball and volleyball teams at the ES Club. He finds his players by visiting the schools for hearing impaired children in the Colombian state of Bolivar and invites those who are interested to come and join the club. There are only a few of these schools in Cartagena, a city of extreme wealth and poverty on the Caribbean coast. Most of the schools are generally funded from abroad and places are only available to children from affluent families. The exception is the Escuela Juan Salvador Gaviotta, a government school on the hot and dusty outskirts of the city.

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Sixteen year old Jairo (pronounced Hi-Ro), attends this school and Cruz-Manuel graduated two years ago but now works there as a teacher's aid a few afternoons each week. He is tall and dark-skinned with a big beaming smile, and he signs faster than most people talk. Jairo is in 4th grade, his parents didn't enrol him in Juan Salvatore until very late. He is shorter and stockier with an equally ready smile. Both are intelligent boys and you can see this, not just by their conversation but in the way they train and play their game.

I first met Cruz-Manuel and Jairo a year ago when I visited Juan Salvador Gaviotta. At that time I was doing some hearing tests at the school with my mother Catherine Bruce, an Audiometrist. We tested as many of the 110 students as we could (most had never been tested) and then had the difficult decision of determining who were the best candidates to receive the 16 hearing aids that had been generously donated to the project by Oticon Australia. It was the enthusiasm of Cruz-Manuel and Jairo that made them obvious choices for the hearing aid trial. Before leaving Cartagena we were able to enlist the services of Claudia Arevalo, an Audiologist in private practice in Cartagena, who kindly volunteers her time, fitting and maintaining the hearing aids on Saturdays. She works with Katia Afrikano, the lone Speech Pathologist at the school, and they take the time to ensure that the students and their families understand the intricacies of fitting and caring for the hearing aids.

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Cruz-Manuel, who has a severe hearing loss, graciously returned his aid shortly after receiving it because it gave him headaches (a common complaint in new hearing aid users). Jairo, however, only has a moderate loss and persevered with is hearing aids and is now capable of holding a verbal conversation - with the occasional signing. "I'm a striker" he told me when we first met at a training session, adding cheekily that he aims to score 1 to 2 goals per match. I ask him about his favourite player and if he dreams of one day playing football professionally. "I like Ronaldhino" he replies "but then so does everybody else. "My dream is to practice a lot. When I've done that, then I can think about playing professionally".

Jairo doesn't wear his hearing aids when playing to avoid them being damaged. But as I watch him, Cruz-Manuel and the other Estrellas running and passing the ball, they move with noticeable fluidity and ease - I can only think that their other senses must be heightened as a result of their hearing impairment.

Your browser may not support display of this image. In a country where football is a religion, these boys are enjoying playing it as much as any kid. Thanks to Alberto, they have a way to explore their natural abilities in an arena where being Deaf only means that they don't hear the silence of the game.