Football has always been considered a great leveler that transcends barriers and is known to promote camaraderie and unity even amongst strangers. Once you are a part of a team on the football field, your teammates’ ability, age, background or gender stops mattering. What unites the team is a common goal to score a goal.

This very essence of football was amply and ably demonstrated during the novel DeafKidz Goal! The tournament organized by Slum Soccer on 9th January 2020 at their Bokhara Academy in Nagpur. The aim of the tournament was to integrate Deaf children and youth with their hearing counterparts towards creating an inclusive society. To achieve this, fifty deaf students of Deaf School, Shankar Nagar and thirty (hearing) youngsters from Slum Soccer’s intervention community centers were brought together and divided into 8 teams, each having representation from deaf and hearing boys and girls. It may be mentioned that Slum Soccer is implementing its innovative DeafKidz Goal! Project at the Deaf School, Shankar Nagar with the support of DeafKidz International and Comic Relief.

It was a sight to behold as hearing players and deaf players of the 8 teams interacted with each other in a language that evolved from the yearning to excel as a team. After initial hiccups, this new hybrid language of mimes and signs became the new mode of communication as they decided their team names and discussed game strategies. The names decided by the teams for themselves were Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus, Dortmund, Inter-Milan, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich.  

In order to ensure a level-playing field as well as ensuring creation of safe space for deaf and hearing players to express themselves freely, the Slum Soccer think-tank had brainstormed and formulated a unique set of rules which included having 4 referees with red and green flags (no whistles), the hearing players had to maintain silence on the field, etc. Adding to the uniqueness was the composition of the teams as each team consisted of 10 players (6 deaf and 4 hearing). 

The tournament, which was held in a league format, was won by Team Juventus 1-0 (acquired name) by a solitary goal scored by Mandhan Khobe. During the tournament, both hearing impaired (Deaf) and hearing players experienced the power of football to drive communication.

Shri Uday Bhoyar, Deaf Association (Deaf Club India) and Mrs. Meena Sangole, Principal, Deaf School Shankarnagar were the Guest of Honour and gave away the trophies to the winning and runners-up teams.

In her motivational address, Mrs.Sangolesaid, “My students are returning from this incredible tournament with not just the confidence to compete with their (hearing) counterparts but also with invaluable lessons in hygiene, safety, nutrition, time management, team spirit, leadership imparted through the curriculum of football. The way this tournament was conceived and organized is beyond my imagination and expectations. After witnessing the enthusiasm, energy, and exuberance of my students here, I am convinced that participating in tournaments like these is one of the best ways for my students to learn essential life skills to progress in life.” 

It was an overwhelming experience for many of the hearing players. Sheetal Sahu from the Dipti Signal community succinctly expressed the sentiments of many of the hearing players,” It was the first time I engaged with deaf children and played with them as a team. It changed my entire perspective. We think they cannot communicate the way we do. But after spending the day with them, I found that they are much more expressive, sharp, very observant and fast learners. What amazed me was their zest and zeal to match us in football even though they have started late. I shall forever cherish this opportunity and I look forward to playing with them again and communicating with them in the sign language they patiently taught us throughout the day.” 

As the dusk settled on the Diversity Pitch of Slum Soccer Academy, Bokhara, Nagpur, a new dawn of hope appeared on the horizon for the Deaf youth of Nagpur – to rise and shine as footballers of national repute.