Volume 73, Number 47 | March 24 -30, 2004


Deaf player excels through field vision and skill

By Judith Stiles

When a referee blows his piercing whistle during a soccer match, everyone knows to stop the play and look to the ref for the call. Did he blow the whistle for a slide tackle that missed the ball and clipped the opponent instead? Was the whistle for a handball or was somebody offside? The call happens very fast and the play seems to stop in a split second. But what happens if a player cannot hear the whistle because he is deaf?

No problem for 11-year-old star forward Angel Ortiz-Riera who cannot hear the whistle with his ears, but instead uses his eyes to “read” the game with heightened awareness. His vision is working overtime and when you watch him play, it is almost as if he has eyes in the back of his head. Because when the ref blows the whistle, Angel knows it. During the game he not only watches the ball, but he is acutely alert of where his teammates and opponents are on the field. At the same time, he also follows the movements of the referee, looking out for a sudden call.

Not being able to hear has actually helped Angel’s game develop faster than most kids his age. For example, when he was 6, his teammates would look down at the ball while they dribbled, while Angel was always looking up because he had to constantly “read” the play on the field. This is a skill that usually develops when a player is much older.

With his current U-12 team, Angel is a stealth player who unobtrusively moves around the field and then almost out of nowhere, springs into action, wins the ball and scores a goal. He is known for being a creative player who surprises spectators with unusual moves such as the “bicycle kick,” where a player kicks the ball backwards over his own head. Asked where he learned how to do that, Angel responds, “From watching television, and then I practiced it.”

Angel first learned to play soccer with his father, also named Angel, at age 5. Angel Sr. played year-round as a child growing up in Ecuador, where the tradition is for the elders to teach the children in casual games. Later, young Angel learned a lot from his 14-year-old cousin, another Angel, from Minnesota. Now he is an essential player on DUSC U-12 and in his school, St. Joseph’s School for The Deaf in the Bronx.

On the Downtown United team he is a key member of the team because he is able to play any position. Lately he was been playing defense which he also enjoys. “It is easy,” he remarks in sign language. “You have to run fast, and you have to be able to get back.” His mother, Lucy, sometimes has to be part of the chalkboard talks with the coach to translate the information for Angel. His teammates always make sure Angel understands the instructions, with flicks of the wrist, pointing and nodding, diagrams on the palm of the hand, in their own invented soccer-sign language; a fascinating shorthand they have developed to communicate during games.

What does the future hold for Angel? “More soccer, and I love basketball, swimming and baseball, in that order,” Angel emphasizes. “I hope to go to the camp in Italy with my team this summer because I love pasta and I want to see how the Italian kids play. I want to play with them!”

“No fear” is the way the DUSC coaches describe Angel on and off the field. If the U-12 boys are going to soccer camp in Italy with a bit of trepidation about not speaking Italian, they can count on Angel to guide them through the language barrier. Angel plans to give the Italian players a few quick lessons on universal hand gestures — signals he invented himself that work in any language, anywhere in the world.


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