Eunate Arraiza is a magnificent example of how to take a life obstacle in your stride. The Athletic Club and Spanish women’s national team player has learned to live with serious hearing impairment to make her way in football, prepare her future and fulfil a host of dreams.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
When Eunate Arraiza was a little girl, it was found that she had a profound hearing disability. Yet this has not deterred her in any way, in what has been a fulfilling journey through life so far. Brought up in a rural family with an agricultural business in the village of Biurrun in north-eastern Spain, Eunate fell head over heels for football – and, as the country’s only female professional deaf footballer, the game has given her moments and experiences to savour.
Now aged 27, Eunate has worked tirelessly to forge herself an impressive playing career which now sees her turning out as a left-sided defender or midfielder for Spanish top-division outfit Athletic Club from Bilbao, and representing her country at senior level.
She is a superb example to follow for anyone who has a serious hurdle to overcome in life.
Eunate recounts how her hearing impairment came to light. “When I was around two, my parents realised that something wasn’t right, because they tried to call me, and I wasn’t answering their calls. Eventually, doctors confirmed that I had a hearing disability.”
“I suffer from complete hearing loss in my left ear, because that’s where I had less residual hearing,” Eunate explains. She had a hearing aid for her left ear until the age of eight, when it was replaced by a coachlear implant hearing aid – a device inserted in the ear. “I have had two devices,” she says. “The previous one was a small pouch with a cable and a magnet. The one that I have now doesn’t have a pouch. It’s a magnet with an earpiece above my ear.”
From her childhood, Eunate attended regular schools. Her parents heard from teachers and experts that it would be better if she attended a school for deaf children. However, they insisted that it would be beneficial to her to be in an environment that would be similar to what she would find as she grew older.
She learned to speak – with the help of speech therapy – read and write. “I got on really well at school,” she says. “I had to work pretty hard. I would have to put in three times the effort of the rest.” She would sit in the front row, in front of teachers with devices that helped her hear, understand and learn.
Meanwhile, football was an ever-present constant: “I think my dad instilled football in me more than anyone as he used to play the game, so it rubbed off on me. I’ve always had a ball with me since I was little and would take it everywhere, at home and outside the house, in the village courtyard with friends.”
During a party in her village, the grassroots football coordinator of the Lagunak club in the town of Barañáin noticed the eight-year-old Eunate’s passion for football, and invited her to join the team. She made her debut in the first division at 14 – and her talent came to the attention of Bilbao’s Athletic Club, who came calling for her when she was 20. Any initial trepidation at what she admits was a major step away from home comforts soon passed, as she became a respected member of a team that was going places – culminating in domestic glory in 2016.
Athletic won the Spanish domestic title – qualifying for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. “It was beautiful and unique,” she says. “I remember the last game, when the final whistle blew, the first thing I did was cry with emotion.”
“I remember all the people [at civic events] with scarves, flags and hats asking for pictures and autographs. We paraded the cup in an open-top bus. It was incredible…it gave me goosebumps.”
The Champions League appearance was another dream come true. “We were unlucky to go out in the first round. But it was an experience - I would like to play again in the competition.”
Domestic joy was followed in 2017 by the accolade of Spanish senior national team selection. Once again, her modesty shines through when she recalls her feelings. “The truth is that I didn’t expect my first call-up to the national team. I was playing with my team in Madrid, and when the game finished, the national coach was speaking to my coach, and they were talking about me a bit.
“They [talked about] me and the national team, and if I was ready. I was delighted. It felt like a reward.”
She made her debut in a 6-0 win over Israel in a FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier in Ramat Gan, coming on as a substitute. “Wearing your country’s colours and hearing the national anthem makes you proud…you’re representing your country at the highest level, you’ve got this far.”
Eunate now yearns for major platforms on which to perform. “My long-term dream is to be called up for the  World Cup,” she says.
On the pitch, Eunate normally wears her hearing aid unless there is, for example, heavy rain or a storm. “When my teammates or my coach talk directly to my face,” she says, “I understand them perfectly. But when they talk to me from behind, I can hear they are talking to me, but I don’t understand the crucial information they are trying to put across.”
Eunate describes her hearing aid as “like another part of my body. I only take it out when I’m sleeping or taking a shower.” She says. “Other than that, I have it in place all day. When I go to train, I put in the hearing aid, it goes above the ear, and then I put my hair in a ponytail.”
“Then I put on my shirt, shorts, socks, boots and then my shin pads. Normally I just have to remember to put the hearing aid in, but then there are all these other things to remember. I have to remind myself that I’m wearing it when I go up for a header. I have to be careful so that if it breaks, I don’t get hurt. I’m just like any other player, but I have to make sure my implant is secure.”
“With regards to the referee, the whistle, the ball, the assistant referees, the crowd and so on, I hear all of it perfectly. When you are in the stadium, when you are playing, you hear the crowd, the noise. However, ultimately, more than hearing the crowd, you hear your teammates. because you are concentrated on the game.”
Happily, she has never been a target for negative comments in her career. “No one has ever said anything to me about my issue,” Eunate explains. “Actually, people have told me that I deserve a lot of credit because, ultimately, I ended up playing for the national team and I play for Athletic Club.”
“A lot of people tell me that I am an example of perseverance. I am thankful that I can be an inspiration to people.”
The view that Eunate is a role model is met with an equally humble response. “It may well be the case that, for many people, I’m a role model in terms of overcoming obstacles - but I always say that I’m a normal person.”
“I feel very proud to be an example of someone who has overcome obstacles and be an important figure for them. But I don’t let it go to my head. The only thing that’s wrong with me are my hearing problems, I think I have a normal life. I study, I play football, I work.”
What would be her advice to anyone with a similar issue to hers? “They mustn’t feel as if they’re alone. They should never stop working. If they like a particular sport, they should devote time to it.”
“If you enjoy something, you should put your all into it – and with hard work, sacrifice and effort, sooner or later, you always reap the rewards that you’re seeking…”