Tuesday, October 4, 2016 – Sharing a pitch with some of Belgium’s top players ranks highly on the wish-list of every footballer. But for a group of Special Olympics athletes this dream became a reality when the Red Devils opened up the doors of their training center in Tubize, Belgium.
The game was organsied in partnership with Special Olympics Belgium to promote awareness of the movement’s Play Unified campaign. Dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences, Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. And what a football match this turned out to be.
Several leading names from the Red Devils signed up to take part in Monday night’s match and they had the full backing of their manager Roberto Martínez who used part of a recent press conference to highlight the activity. Eight Special Olympics athlete and their Unified partners, which consisted of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Simon Mignolet and Dries Mertens, togged out for the seven aside game.
For Tottenham Hotspur player Vertonghen, the experience was a hugely positive one, and helped open his eyes to the talents of athletes with intellectual disabilities and the huge positives of the Play Unified campaign. "I was very impressed by the high standard and professionalism of Special Olympics athletes. It was an exciting match and we saw some good football. Christophe and other athletes were at home on the field,” he said.
Longtime Special Olympics ambassador Kevin De Bruyne was unfortunately injured for the event but sent his best wishes via social media, tweeting: “Did not make the selection due to @BelRedDevils injury. Goal 8 @SpecialOlympics athletes DID !!!#PlayUnified " .
For the Special Olympics athletes involved it was a night to remember. Footballer Christophe Theys, who is one of the athlete fronting Special Olympics Belgium’s Play Unified campaign said: "I will never forget this match! Being able to play with the Devils really says something! I'll train even harder now because I want to become as good as Kevin De Bruyne!"
Special Olympics Belgium’s Co-CEO Zehra Sayin believes the high-profile match will help to generate awareness about the mission of Special Olympics and the Play Unified campaign.
"I am convinced that everybody had fun today. They all gave the best of themselves and can go home satisfied. I am also certain that this Unified game will help make things happen for athletes with intellectual disabilities, for Belgian football clubs, but also for all athletes in other disciplines. Open your hearts and doors to Play Unified!" Concludes Zehra Sayin, Co-CEO of Special Olympics Belgium.
About Special Olympics
Special Olympics is a global movement that unleashes the human spirit through the transformative power and joy of sports, every day around the world. We empower people with intellectual disabilities to become accepted and valued members of their communities, which leads to a more respectful and inclusive society for all. Using sports as the catalyst and programming around health and education, Special Olympics is fighting inactivity, injustice and intolerance. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 5.3 million athletes and Unified partners in 169 countries. With the support of more than 1 million coaches and volunteers, Special Olympics delivers 32 Olympic-type sports and over 108,000 games and competitions throughout the year. Special Olympics is supported by many individuals, foundations and partners
The association Special Olympics Belgium has been active since 1979 and is under the patronage of the Belgian Royal Family. It is also sponsored by Tia Hellebaut and Kevin De Bruyne and recognized by the Belgian Olympic Committee Interfederal.