Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Special soccer

Al-Ahram Weekly sees how mentally challenged athletes are preparing for Brazil's Unity Cup

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SO players in Dubai

This week, Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa regional president and managing director Ayman Abdel-Wahab flew to the US to Special Olympics International headquarters to attend the quarterly board meeting discussing the region's future plans to increase SO membership of athletes and coaches around the world plus reviewing the seven regions participating in the first-ever 2013 Special Olympics Unity Cup to take place in Rio de Janeiro next year, Abeer Anwar reports.

A number of VIP officials will be attending the first ever World Cup for Special Olympics athletes including FIFA President Joseph Blatter and Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver.

"The goal of the Special Olympics Unity Cup is to give more and more Special Olympics athletes the chance to play the most popular sport in the world -- football (soccer). The visibility and power of football will also help bring greater awareness, acceptance and respect for people with intellectual disabilities," explained Shriver.

"Football is the world's most popular sport. No other sport has its reach and impact. We know football transforms athletes, and we believe it has the popularity and power to help transform attitudes about intellectual disability as well, " explained Abdel-Wahab.

Blatter said he was enthusiastic about the Special Olympics Unity Cup Rio 2013. "FIFA is determined to give its support to Special Olympics whose goal is truly remarkable," Blatter said.

Through its Football For Hope movement, FIFA is helping Special Olympics in 10 countries in Africa. Thanks to this partnership, more than 3,000 young players with intellectual disabilities have become involved in football training and competition. They are also given free health screenings.

Many well-known football stars are also big supporters of the Special Olympics movement, including Kaka, David James, Carlos Parreira, Kristine Lilly, Doris Fitschen, Teofilo Cubillas and Dani Alves.

"Through football, we can help people with intellectual disabilities achieve greater things, on and off the field; in turn, they can inspire all of us with their unstoppable spirit," says Argentinian football legend Osvaldo (Ossie) Ardiles.

Due to the importance of the event, the Middle East and North Africa region has established a number of rules to ensure fair competition by dividing the MENA region into two: North Africa and the Middle East. "We will hold qualifiers in both North Africa which will be hosted by Egypt from 14 to 20 December, and in Middle East, the United Arab Emirates will be the host to the event that will take place from 30 November to 6 December," Mohamed Nasser, SO MENA sports and competitions director, said.

In order to make the qualifications fair and give equal chance to all programmes and athletes, Nasser decided to appointed a number of football head coaches to supervise the qualification and exclude any team that does not abide by the rules. Due to the event being the first time for Special Olympics to play a unified World Cup in football, Nasser said the teams that will be allowed to participate should consist of 18 players -- 10 special Olympics athletes and eight able-bodied athletes who are almost at the same level as their mentally disabled team-mates. Their ages should be between 16-25 years old.

The players should include six Special Olympics athletes and five able-bodied players who are not football players in clubs but in universities or schools. He added that each Special Olympics athlete possess a recent certificate about his disability from the Ministry of Social Affairs of his country. Each team will have the chance to make five changes and the substitutes will not be allowed to play again to give an opportunity for all players to take part in the match.

As Abdel-Wahab underlined, "We will be representing our MENA region via the two teams that will qualify to the Special Olympics Unity Cup. We will be watched by the whole world so we should present our best. It is a golden opportunity for players of Special Olympics to get the chance to play in the same venues of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil."

Tanzania joined hosts South Africa and Ivory Coast in qualifying for the 2013 Special Olympics Unity Cup.

Tanzania grabbed the slot after finishing runner-up at last week's Special Olympics Africa qualifying tournament for Rio 2013.

Team Tanzania narrowly missed out on a top prize after losing 3-2 to hosts South Africa as the 2012 Africa Unity Cup for Special Olympics teams came to a close last Saturday.

The Ivory Coast, meanwhile, won the third place playoff against Kenya 4-0. The outcome of the tournament means that South Africa, Tanzania and Ivory Coast will represent Africa at next year's World Cup in Brazil which is reserved for the top three finishers.

The tournament in Phokeng, South Africa featured 22 national teams from 14 African countries. The teams participating in this regional seven-a-side football tournament from October 3 and 6 included South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland, Uganda and Zambia.

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