Spain has staged its first national championship for Unified Football – a form of the game developed by the UEFA-supported Special Olympics (SO) movement that brings football players with learning disabilities together on the same pitch as those without a disability.
Unified Football follows the same rules as normal seven-a-side football, aside from the fact each team is made up of people with and without learning disabilities. It has proved particularly successful in the United Kingdom where a Unified Football Development Project has operated since 2008, reaching out to some 30 teams and more than 700 participants.
The initiative is now spreading across Europe following an agreement between Special Olympics Europe Eurasia (SOEE) and the European Union (EU) to implement a continent-wide programme. As a consequence, Spain was able to hold a national championship in Albacete, featuring 126 players from 12 teams, and organised by Special Olympics Spain and the Castilla-La Mancha Federation for Athletes with Learning Disabilities (FECAM).
Ismael Parrilla, chief executive of FECAM, told UEFA.com: "It was a hugely successful event in which athletes with and without disabilities shared the same values on and off the pitch. There is growing demand in European societies for the total inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in all aspects of the community, so the main aim is to allow social interaction and promote full inclusion.
"Unified Football raises awareness of learning disabilities while challenging views that many people may have of what a learning disability is. Both FECAM and Special Olympics Spain intend to continue with the project and are working together for the next edition of the championship in 2012. We hope to consolidate this event and promote this sport in more clubs in Spain. We are pleased to enable integration in society through football."
Activities that are part of the Special Olympics EU Youth Football Development Project include football tournaments on local, regional and national levels, as well as clinics, seminars, media conferences and promotional events. National football associations and professional clubs are supporting the community-based initiatives while, in addition to Unified Football, there is also an emphasis on volunteer coach recruitment and training.
UEFA has been giving significant backing to SOEE since 1998. Through its sports programmes, SO strives to provide long-term benefits to individuals' health, self-esteem and social integration.
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