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by Vadim Korablev,, 29/03/2021

In the summer of 2020, the 47 v igre [47 in play, ed] football academy dedicated to people with Down syndrome became operational in St. Petersburg. The figure 47 refers to the number of chromosomes of babies with this syndrome. The creators of this academy were two friends who, in their personal circle, had never come across Down syndrome directly. They are the freelancers Jura and Paša. We spent a day with them to understand why two 30-year-olds dedicate part of their lives to people who are not easy to coach. But for whom football is, without exaggeration, the most important care.

The founders do not want any pity to be shown towards the children. At training sessions, everything is treated seriously: from working with the ball to the tactical board and the Goal Station system.

“This issue does not interest anyone. Even our friends and acquaintances do not understand our choice. They are amazed: what is the point of it all, we don’t make money,’ says Paša, co-founder of 47 v Igre. We meet at the Peterhof golf club, which is located in a historic part of St Petersburg, on the banks of the Fontanka River, a 20-minute walk from the Mariinsky Theatre.

We meet at the golf club not by chance: there, from 12 to 2 p.m., Vanja, a 30-year-old boy who is the best footballer at the Paša and Jura academy, trains. Vanja was born with Down syndrome, but that doesn’t stop him from trying out the golf simulator, practising football three times a week, going swimming, taking part in the drama club and attending English lessons. Vanja also has a job: on weekdays he gets up at 4.20 a.m., leaves from Gorelovo [practically in the suburbs, Ed] to go to the Narvskaja metro station [practically in the centre, Ed] and help his mother with cleaning at a school.

Paša is 31, Jura 29. They both call me “Lei”, despite the fact that I am 25. Paša has a beard and is dressed sportily. Jura has a moustache and wears a jumper and casual trousers. When they were children, they played football together: that’s how they met.

The idea for the academy was born in the summer of 2020. At the time, Paša saw an episode of KraSava [a blog hosted by Žeka Savin dealing with football-related topics, ed] about children with special disabilities and decided he would like to help them in St Petersburg. He called Jura and, together, they decided to think about what to do. “We realised that there was nothing like this in the city,” explains Jura. “Only a few were dealing with the issue. We turned to Down Zentr, an association that brings together families who have children with Down syndrome. The organisation was set up directly by the parents. They helped us a lot when we started the project. They also organise sports activities and leisure events. The children take part in gymnastics, swimming, football, etc. With Paša we went to see their football practice and noticed that very little was practised. The bare minimum.

So we came up with the idea of a school entirely dedicated to football, with specially prepared training and also with sporting goals. Last year, the team of children with Down’s syndrome from St Petersburg reached eighth place in the national competition. “We want to become first at least in Russia,” says Jura. “Few are as thorough as we are in training.

In October, the Trisome Games [the equivalent of the Olympics for people with Down syndrome, ed] will be held in Italy. There will be several disciplines and one of our goals is to go there with a team from Russia’.

Paša and Jura intend to become a professional academy, so they don’t cut any corners [during training, Ed]: before the match there is warm-up and work with the ball. There are tactics sessions with the blackboard, the goalkeepers have the support of the Goal Station system, a Danish piece of equipment that top clubs also use. You have probably already seen the principle behind how it works: depending on the exercise proposed, there are some sensors that light up in different combinations. You have to react to these sensors in such a way that you develop reactivity, coordination and speed.

The two weekly training sessions are attended consistently by around 20 people, and there is also an additional session for the better prepared. Paša and Jura emphasise that they do not only work with children: the average age of the group is between 15 and 20. The ‘oldest’ is Vanja, the youngest is ten years old. Paša is the head coach, Jura deals with media relations and partners, although he also helps on the field. Aleksandr Danilov, father of one of the girls, Andrej Il’in, representative of Goal Station, and Denis Paršenkov, supporter of the project, also regularly help with the work.

“The children apply themselves a lot. – says Jura – When they explain something to us, we have a lot of thoughts in our heads and think about how we look in the eyes of others, other events come to mind. With our boys, in this sense, everything is easier. For example, for Vanja this is his second ever golf practice and he has already learnt how to play the holes correctly. He plays like a real golfer. They tell him: keep your back straight, your head down and your arms straight. And he does it’.

“They do everything according to directions. – points out Paša – Furthermore, they remember everything very well. The only need: they have to perfect the exercises for a long time. If we work on an exercise over the course of three weeks, they start doing everything automatically. It’s more complicated with children who don’t speak at all, but they too make progress. If we compare the initial situation with the current one, they are two different worlds. In the first training sessions it was difficult: there were those who shouted, those who swore, those who simply sat in the goal and spat. Psychologically it’s heavy, but we try to take the situation with humour. If someone lies down on the pitch, we lie down with him. Then we hug each other and lie down together. You say to him: “What shall we do, let’s go?” and together we resume training”.

Paša and Jura are sure that there is no need to get angry and shout. Mistakes must be talked about directly with the person involved, otherwise there will be no growth. Even more important is to remember that children cannot perform several functions at once. “It makes little sense to learn everything from scratch. – says Jura – Everyone must have their own task: there are those who retrieve the ball, those who shoot at goal, those who pass the ball. Everyone has to hone their best qualities. If your task is to make a precise pass and you make it, you will receive a compliment. In contrast, in the past, all the boys had only one goal: to score a goal. If they didn’t score, they left crying to their parents or resented it. We explain to them that football is not just about scoring goals”.

For training, they use a five-a-side football hall and the pitch has artificial turf. According to Paša and Jura, the rent of the pitch, the purchase of the balls, the coaches’ salaries and other expenses are covered by a person who does not want to advertise himself. Finding this person was not easy. “No one wants to get involved in this area. We also met with influential people, but they immediately told us that this must be a social business. In other words: every parent who can pay, has to pay. If he cannot, we will pay. But this system didn’t suit us.

Since the academy is not yet legally formed, the founders are thinking about how it will be structured. They certainly do not want contact with the state. “State structures have approached us, but for the time being we want to present ourselves as a private entity. – says Jura – The State is always a mix of protocols, budgets, a lot of paperwork and censorship. Often the whole visual component of state structures evokes a feeling of sadness or pity. Especially when it comes to issues concerning disabled children or people with special disabilities. We want to appear modern, simple and, when possible, take it lightly. We want to generate different emotions: enthusiasm for the sports results, pride for the children, smiles’.

In truth, without contact with the state it is impossible to succeed. Today 47 v igre is taking part in the competition of the Rossijskij Futbol’nyj Sojuz [Russian Football Federation, ed] for the nomination of ‘Best regional project for the mass development of football among people with limited health capacity’. The financial support is 150,000 roubles, which is enough to pay rent and salaries for a couple of months.

Vanja played in the city league: at first the organisers were against it, but then they gave the OK. The founders of the academy asked the opponents not to go too easily against him

The name 47 v igre was also adopted for the team that Paša and Jura entered in the Sporting-Liga – the highest amateur tournament in St Petersburg. In the last match of last season, a big event occurred: for the 47 v igre team, a person with Down syndrome made his debut. It was Vanja. He came on in the second half for 15 minutes and was not lost, even though it would have been easy. “It happened in the last game, by a sign of destiny. – says Paša – Against a strong team, which runs a lot. Not only do they play well, but they are also all healthy. Yet Vanja came in confident, he had no fear at all”.

The boys [Paša and Jura, Ed] were clearly more worried than Vanja. At first, when they warned the competition organisers that they wanted to enter a footballer with Down syndrome, the organisers objected. But then, on the day itself, they changed their minds and promised extensive media support. Before the match, Paša and Jura tried to get in touch with their opponents, but could not find the necessary phone numbers. They only spoke to the opposing team on the day of the match. They asked them not to play hard, but also not to let themselves be outplayed on purpose. And they were listened to: the opponents were not unfair, but when possible, they stole the ball from Vanja skilfully and without hesitation. Everything went smoothly. After the match, Paša’s and Jura’s social profiles teemed with compliments and offers of help.

Nevertheless, Paša and Jura’s approach sometimes causes misunderstandings among the parents of the academy boys.

Here is one such situation, recounted by Jura: ‘For New Year’s Eve we organised a party for the boys, we ordered personal Fifa stickers [on the Ultimate Team model, ed], in which everyone had rating 99. In addition, we gave those parents who helped us during the year small gadgets. We wanted to reward them, thank them, and reiterate our gratitude for their benevolence and support. Of the 20 families, we awarded six and after the award ceremony, a mother asked us why we had not given her and her family the gadgets as well. It was an uncomfortable situation.

Afterwards, some people who have been working with these families for a long time explained to us that often at parties or awards everyone receives a gift, regardless of the results. If the habit of receiving prizes and benefits spreads, this problem can manifest itself. We understand these dynamics, but we will maintain our line. When we talk about inclusion, we want to celebrate those who distinguish themselves through their support. This is exactly what happens in the lives of all other people. There is the first, second and third place. The fourth place and the ones after that stay off the podium’.

Soon, the founders of the academy will have to address another important issue with the parents: Vanja’s future has to be defined. At present, the boy already helps out at training sessions, but they would like him to become a coach-player, complete with official presentation, signing of the contract, photographs and handshakes. They would like to offer him a small salary, comparable to what he earns helping his mum with cleaning at school.

“It is nice that Vanja finds time to do all these activities, but he often falls asleep in the car on the way to practice. – says Jura – With this contract, we would like to lighten up his daily routine a bit, offer him a new work experience and get closer together to our future goal: to be an inclusive sports centre. It will be a centre open to everyone, but it will be our boys who will work and receive a decent salary”.

The training that is about to begin is that of the academy’s best players, eight people have gathered: six boys and two girls. I immediately got to know the goalkeeper: 14-year-old Liza. They have already told me about her: she goes to school on her own, shops at the supermarket and cooks on her own. Her mother Ljudmila Kogoleva is just one of those people who help Paša and Jura with everything. When faced with Liza’s charm, it is impossible to resist: she asks a million questions about my work, allows me to mention her in this text and comes up to hug me. Hugs are an important means of communication for people with Down syndrome. Paša and Jura say that in the early days, because of the hugs, they were forced to stop training, whereas now the boys have become more disciplined.

The group quickly changes and enters a giant space, divided into several rooms. The boys train in the largest area, along a strip of huge windows that used to be plastic. Tying their shoes is the only difficulty the boys have with the equipment. Vanja, for example, can manage this problem, while for others it is difficult because of mobility disorders. Therefore Paša and Jura want to buy everyone sneakers with rips.

The boys immediately surprise me: no one dares to run with the ball until the coaches have started training. Only precise passes and shots on goal. Even the warm-up is serious, although during the run some try to pass each other. Then they work with the ball and the Goal Station system.

While the boys are busy with football practice, I get to know the parents. Accompanying the boys is not enough, so the mothers and fathers follow the practice for an hour and a half. Then there are those who go home and those who continue with other activities. For example, Larisa Efimova, mother of 14-year-old Igor’, says that [after training, Ed] they will go to the pool for a control training before the championship in St Petersburg. ‘We go home and do our homework. We manage to combine all these activities with school. My son ended the term with only a four. Otherwise he only has five [the grading system in Russian school has a scale from two, insufficient, to five, the highest grade, Ed],’ the woman says.

Parents explain that their children attend recreational activity clubs practically every day and do so not because they are under pressure, but because they like it. “This is what distinguishes our children. You ask them: what do you like best? They answer: I like everything!” explains Liza’s mum.

“Our children need to be taken out of their comfort zone. That is why they must always be taught something. We parents are not eternal, we have to make sure they socialise. We have to make sure they fit into society, that they feel comfortable here,’ lists another aspect Nadežda Evseeva, mother of 14-year-old Alesja, the second child in the group.

The parents particularly appreciate football, explains Liza’s mother. “It is very important that it is a team game. Each child has his or her own peculiarities: my, me are the words we hear most often. Football teaches them that they have to help each other and listen to each other. Even executing a pass means seeing a teammate”.

“Football breaks down their limits,” says Alesja’s mother, “they start to do what they didn’t do before. And if at the beginning they do it with some fear, the second and third time they do it well”.

In order for children with Down syndrome to be able to play sports and attend recreational activities, they must be cared for from birth, almost on a daily basis. Today, many more people are ready to educate these children: 20 years ago, the motherhood refusal rate in these situations reached 95%. In 2021, it dropped to 50%. In Russia, Down syndrome affects one in every 600-800 newborns. According to data from the Downside Up fund, about half of them are in infancy.

The attitude of society is also changing. Now it is almost impossible for doctors to frighten parents and convince them to have an abortion, whereas in the past it was quite normal.