Two sweaty, stinky, happy vagabonds holding a ball (yep, you guessed it, The Ball) are on the back of a moving truck, surrounded by dancing Special Olympics volunteer girls and SO athletes, led by a gendarmerie on a motorcycle, siren blaring away, and followed by 10 bright yellow DHL vehicles. It is a sight for sore eyes…
…and a sound for dancing ears as an excellent DJ is cranking out super tunes on the rather large sound-system on the truck and, as we pass, bystanders are getting into it — dancing and waving. The Special Olympics athletes are absolutely made up. So are we. What a great time. What a great idea! A cavalcade through the streets of Abidjan from street to stadium, from the airport to downtown, from slum to high-rise. This snaking cavalcade of fun has a morning of visits through the streets of Abidjan and a Unified Football event to get to. Let’s go.
At our first stop we meet with Côte d’Ivoire’s most famous footballer of all time: Laurent Pokou who is even more famous and highly regarded in Côte d’Ivoire than current Chelsea star Didier Drogba. Pokou was twice the highest goalscorer of the Africa Cup of Nations and was voted the best African player of the twentieth century. He is all smiles as he juggles The Ball with Phil and children. Laurent has paid for the cavalcade. He loves this ball.
We process through 5 of Abidjan’s 10 districts and in each we stop to meet the mayor and various dignitaries for a quick hello and a hand over of footballs and football shirts from SO turning up at an event, where the Minister of Sport is awaiting The Ball. He addresses a large crowd and mentions The Ball as a unifying factor. After he has headed it and signed it we are off again.
Our final destination is a Special Olympics unified football event, where Andrew is a super-sub, coming off the bench to score a cracking left-foot goal. 20 minutes of football later, he collapses in a heap on the ground, unable to move any more in the sweltering heat.
We are scheduled to play in a Unified Football tournament today. As ever in West Africa, the fearsome heat makes us anxious about taking part. But these events are such fun that it is impossible to stay on the sidelines. So bring on the football, bring on the sweat!
Special Olympics athletes are joined by DHL staff and members of the Burkina Faso Football Association including its president and members of the national Burkina Faso Under-17 team, who have competed at the recent Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.
Being a Liverpool fan, Andrew is very keen to play on the team that is dressed in the Liverpool kit.
An open and friendly atmosphere develops as everyone gets to know one another. All the teams play against each other and once more football is the winner.
Some of the Special Olympics athletes who are playing have quite severe disabilities, but they are accepted as players of equal importance to each team.
The large crowd of spectators (we estimate around 500 people have turned up) seem to enjoy the games a lot and are very vocal in their support. The post-football celebrations show that making new friendships means that, whatever happens on the pitch, everyone is a winner off the pitch.
Phil watches the world weather forecast on Matinal, a French TC channel, as we have our breakfast — half a baguette with butter and jam, the Malian standard. “We are in the hottest place in the world again today,” he muses. Driving across Bamako on a Saturday, windows down, Kassoum’s dashboard thermometer indicates 40 degrees. Why the obsession with the heat? We’re heading to the national stadium to play a game of football and we’re anxious, that’s why!
It’s not just any game. This one is with Special Olympics athletes, it is a game of Unified Football where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play together on mixed teams. Our game is the curtain-raiser to the Malian first division game between FC Djoliba, reigning Malian champions and leaders of the Malian Premier League and visitors FC Duguwolofiila. Unlike the professional game, ours is thankfully only ten minutes each way.
As we arrive at Mali’s national stadium, the Stade de 26 Mars, the Special Olympics athletes are already getting ready to play in the game of Unified Football. Kits are donned and out we go. After 20 minutes of Unified Football in the punishing 45 degree heat, Andrew is coughing and struggling for breath.
The game ends 1-1 and the teams pose for photos, hoping that the game has warmed the hearts of the spectators as much as it has their burning muscles.
As always, people gather round to sign The Ball, whose original inscriptions are now lost beneath the deluge of subsequent signatures.
And so to the main event. The teams come out onto the field. Phil and Andrew are asked to pose for photos with the Djoliba and Duguwolofiila captains, the referees and The Ball. However, the officials seem more worried about Andrew’s horn than they do about Phil’s Edna Everage impression.
We watch some of the game from our seats in the dignitaries area but we can’t resist the calling of the music. We drift away and spend most of the match in the stands with the FC Djoliba musicians.
Music and football — when these two common languages come together, there’s always fun to be had.
We like to think of the way in which The Ball travels as one big game of football where the world itself is the pitch and everyone a player. The Ball highlights the ways in which football can be inclusive — breaking down barriers wherever it is played.
So when we learnt that Special Olympics have developed a variation on the standard game which they call Unified Football®, we were intrigued. We went to the Iba Mar Diop Stadium in Dakar to see how it works.
The basic premise of Unified Football is that each team consists of both Special Olympics athletes and mainstream athletes training and playing alongside each other. Andrew had hoped he might get special treatment on account of being unused to the heat. No such luck — there are no allowances made on the pitch for anyone, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
When this kind of game happens, the emphasis is not so much on the winning as on the taking part. What is foremost in everyone’s minds is the sheer joy of playing the game — the essence of the “spirit of football” as we see it.
When football is played this way, it becomes immediately apparent that Special Olympics athletes are people of equal status and value in the community. And encouraging that kind of acceptance really is a cause for celebration.