These last eight months of pandemic have deprived us of our lives as we knew them, but among all our routine, one might have been hit the hardest: our freedom to move. Athletes were particularly badly hit as training and games were cancelled across the world. Among them, athletes with intellectual disabilities became even more vulnerable due to the lack of activity and social interaction, with more repercussions on their personal lives. A recent Special Olympics survey found that people with intellectual disabilities across Europe reported a lack of access to basic necessities: 20% of athletes surveyed did not have enough food and 15% did not have a safe place to live while 37% of school-aged athletes did not have access to education or remote learning. Meanwhile, 75% of athletes across the region felt more isolated during Covid-19.
One recent campaign has been working to counter the risks of isolation among football players with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics Europe Eurasia launched the #FacesofFootball campaign and digital hub in mid-September, supporting footballers with intellectual disabilities to continue training remotely and to stay connected to their teammates, coaches, and fans. The platform allows athletes to keep on training by watching tutorials online, talk to their teammates, get organised into teams, and build an international community of athletes with intellectual disabilities and their supporters. 2,700 participants from more than 50 countries have signed up so far for the campaign, boosting a unique platform and idea with sheer enthusiasm.
The initiative, designed to replace the in-person matches and tournaments of this year’s Special Olympics European Football Week, has not gone unnoticed among star players of the game.
In a live webinar from his current home in the US, former Italy captain and Juventus star Alessandro del Piero commended the initiative, saying it was an important step to maintain engagement with those so often left on the sidelines: “You are all doing an important job, especially now. I also want to send a huge hug to all the people involved in Special Olympics and to all the families who look after their children. Good luck to all of you and congratulations!”
Ireland and Everton captain, Seamus Coleman also added his words of support saying that such online connectivity was vital during the virus pandemic: “Faces of Football gives football players with and without intellectual disabilities across Europe the opportunity to come together, train and compete in the game they love without ever leaving their own home or garden. Everyone is welcome and everyone is included. Even though we’re not physically together on the pitch or in the stadium, to me, this is the perfect example of the inclusive power of sport.”
Athletes and coaches alike welcome the benefits of the initiative, including those that helped produce the training videos across six different football disciplines.
“Seven weeks with no football, no work, no meeting friends, it was hard,” says Selina Bothfuhr, a German footballer playing on a women’s team in Berlin. Selina was part of the training videos focused on dribbling which she filmed alongside her teammates and coach. “I was very happy to see the other girls and the trainer again.”
“I couldn’t meet and see the athletes for a long time and didn’t know exactly what their conditions were like,” says Rob Van Someren Brand, a Special Olympics Germany women’s football coach who trains Selina and her teammates. “I feared that they would have slipped more into isolation and stopped their development. Faces of Football was an opportunity to get out of this isolation and it was important for me to meet the girls again. Moving again and having fun was a positive boost in the girls’ development. What I find unique about Faces of Football is that people with an intellectual disability can demonstrate how to do exercises and to present that to other people across Europe.”“I enjoyed being able to showcase my skills to others, and hopefully, other footballers can learn the skills that I learned,” says Gavan O’Dwyer, an Irish athlete, who says promoting the game online for others around the world was one of the best parts of Faces of Football.
“Being away from each other for six months was difficult,” says Graham Hillick, a Special Olympics Ireland coach who features on the platform. “Faces of Football offers athletes the opportunity to show their talents on a global scale and through social media for everyone to see. What I love most is seeing everybody of all different abilities taking part in the game. So to have the opportunity to take part in this campaign was an honour, and to see how various nations and athletes train and compete was fantastic,” adds Graham.
Some fortunate athletes were able to attend European Football Week 2020 events in small groups to complement their Faces of Football activities. For example, Russian Spartakiad celebrated European Football Week by bringing together – digitally – 21 teams with 105 athletes for a virtual competition. Meanwhile in Romania, some 75 athletes and 25 physical education teachers took to the pitch for individual skills competitions in schools and centres across five cities.
For those football players and supporters who can’t get out on the pitch with their teammates right now, the Faces of Football hub is still buzzing with activity. And the good news is that it’s not too late to sign up and connect with other football enthusiasts! Visit specialolympicsfacesoffootball.com to learn how you too can support Faces of Football across Europe today!