Ward Pettis, Emmanuel Dadzie and a small circle of friends accepted a sporting mission to Mexico City last month. Their task: To beat soccer teams from Mexico and Australia in a tournament and win the right to advance to the World Games for the Deaf in Cologne, West Germany, next year.

On the scoreboard, the United States team won one and lost one -- and thus failed to advance. They were shut out by Mexico, 4-0, but edged Australia, 5-4, for the first American victory since this country entered international competition in 1965, when Gallaudet College hosted the tournament.

Off the scoreboard, however, the team won everything and lost nothing. "It was a fabulous experience," said Pettis, 26, a lab worker at the National Cancer Institute. "I couldn't believe we were staying the same place (the Sports Center in Mexico City) as worldclass and Olympic athletes. We could interact with Poles and Cubans despite our political differences. I had a much better understanding of the Olympic spirit while I was watching the Winter Olympics. I was in favor of boycotting the summer Games before. Now I'm not so sure.

"I was also surprised at how pretty the Mexican women were," he added.

Dadzie, a counselor and part-time graduate student at Gallaudet, was more concerned with the welfare of his teammates.

"It was very exciting," said the 34-year-old father of three. "We had an opportunity to meet other deaf people and exchange gifts. The American team had a big heart, but not all the skills. The skill was not nearly as great as the other teams', but the enthusiasm made up for it. In two more years they could compete internationally, provided there was some practice and a continuing program."

Nothing would make Marty Minter, the Olympic coach, happier. Now in his 13th year at Gallaudet, Minter isn't asking sympathy for his players. He says a little recognition and a few dollars would go a long way.

"Mexico has been training for five months," Minter explained, "and the Australians had been together for about a month before the games and had been in Mexico City for a week. We got there on a Monday and had to play on Wedneday and Friday. We had no continuity and no time for training. The game against Mexico was our first as a group."

The players hardly knew each other. Minter, who was chosen as coach by Art Kruger, executive director of the United States Athletic Association for the Deaf (ASAAD), conducted a 10-day tryout camp at Gallaudet last summer. He selected from the 35 candidates a 15-man team, ranging in age from 17 to 34. Some, such as Dadzie and Pettis, hadn't played soccer since college. None of them had played together before the tryout, and none of them would play together after it.

None of them could afford to. Each team member was busy raising $800 to cover his expenses in Mexico City. Pettis got a Christmas present and a loan from his parents, and the rest came from the general fund of the USAAD, which received some money from those who exceeded their goals. Dadzie covered his expenses with a little help from his friends.

Pettis, who has enough hearing to have gone to King's College in Tennessee before going on to graduation from Gallaudet, where he first learned to play soccer, took annual leave from his lab. Dadzie, in whose native Ghana playing soccer comes almost as naturally as breathing, was given administrative leave from his alma mater. He had hearing earlier in his life, but has since lost it.

Neither, however, has lost the ability to communicate. Each is verbally articulate and visually precise, and the latter ability proved particularly relevant in Mexico City.

"We thought their sign language would be different," Pettis explained, "but we discovered we could communicate easier with the Mexicans who knew Spanish than with the Australians who knew English, because we could finger-spell the same. I enjoyed this trip much more than my last one (a two-week stay in 1972) because I could interact and communicate. The first time, I couldn't find out anything about the city."

He and his teammates liked what they found. They were given tours of two ancient pyramids, a large cathedral, parks and government buildings. Dadzie said the sights were impressive, but not enough to cure his homesickness.

"I didn't like the accommodations," he said. "I liked being around the other athletes but not where we were staying. And I didn't like the food much either. I was in a hurry to get home."

First things first, however. Such as exchanging pins with the Mexican players, and shirts with the Australians. Like Pettis purposely not informing his friends of his mission and then sending wish-you-were-here postcards. And each player coming away richer than when he had arrived.

"I know all my friends were proud of me," Dadzie said. "They all wanted to know if we would be going to Germany. We didn't, but we could be competitive if we played together four months. The coach did a wonderful job with the small-skilled players he had. It's something always worth remembering."

Pettis scored the first goal of his life against Australia. "I'll never forget my goal," Pettis said. "I'm a halfback, so I don't get to score much. Then, when it went in, I was sure it would be called back. I thought there had to be an offside, because we had so many of them during the game.

"But the most important experience was learning how fortunate we are to live in the United States. It's hard for us here, but the discrimination is definitely worse elsewhere. The Mexicans and Australians told us how lucky we were, and three Canadians who were there said they wanted to come work here.

"When we walked in behind the flag, I was really moved. And I was really proud to have that pin in my lapel. It was the first time I'd ever done anything like that."

Maybe it won't be the last.