- Today is International Sign Language Day
- Tefy Krebs is Brazil's first deaf professional women's footballer
- We hear the Palmeiras starlet’s inspirational fight against prejudice
“You’re deaf. Get realistic. How can you become a professional footballer if you can’t even hear someone telling you to pass the ball?”
Stefany Krebs had been plagued by similar heart-harrowing, get-a-real-career comments, but these ones really hurt. The 15-year-old headed home, sunk into her bed, sobbed uncontrollably into her pillow and reluctantly pondered if her latest accoster was right. After a few hours, she headed for the living room and informed her family she was going to give up on her dream.
“It broke my heart, but I decided I would give up on football,” Tefy told FIFA.com. “I no longer felt a deaf person had the right to become a footballer. I didn’t have a clue what I’d do for a career, but I thought I had to do something where I could communicate in sign language and I knew that, with that not being football, I wouldn’t be happy.”
Day one of that new career was in January. As Tefy had forecast, she was communicating in sign language on her first day. As she feared, she was in a flood of tears. This time, however, it was “a day I will never forget for the rest of my life” and an unforgettable victory for the hard of hearing over prejudice.
On the day Palmeiras unveiled Rosana, the former Lyon and North Carolina Courage player, they made Tefy Brazil's first deaf women's professional footballer. And, when her name was megaphoned across Allianz Parque by the emcee, a tear-jerking moment unfolded: the 2,000-plus fans in attendance simultaneously made the ‘Congratulations’ gesture in sign language.
“I was overcome with emotion,” Tefy recalled. “It was so beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. To see all the supporters doing sign language, there are no words to describe it. It made me feel like I belonged.
“It was even better seeing my mother there. She had travelled for 16 hours by bus to be there, and she presented me with my Palmeiras shirt. I loved that.”
Tefy feels indebted incalculably to her mother, who played the lead role in convincing her not to pursue another career in her mid-teens.
“I have the best family you could ever wish for,” she said. “My mother refused to let me quit. She told me it was my dream and that I was going to go after it. And my dad, brother and sister supported my dream so much too.
“I fell in love with football – or futsal initially – when I was six years old. My brother Jean, who’s also deaf, taught me how to play, made me discover my favourite toy, my gift, the thing that makes me happiest.
“My brother’s dream was also to be a footballer. He’s incredibly talented, but it didn’t happen due to him being deaf and having communication problems with the club he was at. That made me want to do it for him as well as myself.
“So at 15 I went to live on my own in Santa Catarina and play for a hearing club. There was no one to explain things to me in sign language – sometimes I went hungry and I felt so alone. I wanted my mother to take me home, but she insisted that I pursue my dream and it made me stronger.”
It paid off. In 2015 Brazil, who finished last at the previous edition, seized silver at the Women’s Deaf World Championship in Thailand, with Tefy, despite being just 17, named tournament MVP. Last year, at the global finals in Switzerland, Tefy helped A Seleção win gold and, despite not being fully fit after knee surgery, was crowned the competition’s best young player.
“The World Championships were both dreams,” she said. “Sometimes I still can’t believe they are real. I still get emotional thinking about them sometimes.”
Tefy’s performances in Thailand and Switzerland, after which she had the “incredible experience” of visiting the FIFA World Football Museum, formulated a dream for someone else.
“The fitness trainer for the deaf Seleção, Willian Pires Bitencourt, also worked for Palmeiras and his dream was to see a deaf player become a professional footballer,” Tefy explained. “He made it happen. I owe him so much.
“It was hard to believe at first. I cried my eyes out again – you must think I cry all the time!”
So, how has it been adapting from playing alongside fellow deaf players to hearing ones?
“Our language is different, so it’s been difficult, especially at the start,” said Tefy. “In football it’s tougher [than in everyday life]: players shout a lot, whereas deaf players rely a lot on gestures. But little by little we’re adapting.
“I’m extremely grateful to Palmeiras, the coaching staff and the players for everything they’ve done for me. Every day I get to training 30 minutes before the other players to find out what we’re going to be doing in training, raise any doubts. It’s just me and the coaching staff.”
A few weeks ago Tefy, who dreams of representing the hearing Seleção and playing overseas one day, made her professional debut in a 4-1 victory over Ponte Preta in the Women’s Brasileirao. Tomorrow, the women in green will make history by playing at the Allianz Parque for the first time. Today, the Erechim native has a message.
“I love inspiring deaf people and anyone with deficiencies,” Tefy said. “I want to fight for my dreams so that deaf people don’t feel alone and have the will to fight for their dreams. I really hope to see a day when inclusion is genuine.
“Believe in yourself, in your ability and dreams always. It’s down to you. Nobody will do it for you; only you can achieve it. Nothing is impossible.
“Let’s continue fighting for our rights and not allowing prejudice, bullying and doubts to stop us. We can continue showing that we’re human beings, and capable, just like everybody else.
“I’m very proud to be deaf and to be part of the international deaf community. I thank God for giving us the wonderful sign language that we have. We may not be able to speak vocally, but our hands are voice. Happy International Sign Language Day. Congratulations to everyone."