Special Olympics Coaches from the United States had the opportunity to experience the Special Olympics European Football Week up close and personal in Serbia. The five American coaches, joined by two of their peers from Montenegro and three from Serbia, were part of an international coach exchange funded by the US Department of State. The aim of the exchange is to enhance the skills of Special Olympics coaches who work with individuals with intellectual disabilities in various sports. Special Olympics Serbia played host to the guest coaches.
The coaches had the opportunity to learn about professional and grassroots football from several guest speakers including Coach Cvjetin Blagojevic from Red Star Belgrade Football Club; Dr. Jovan Jelic, a retired medical doctor with Premier League and National Teams; and Igor Jankovic, Director, Basic Football, Football Association of Serbia. Miodrag Maksimovic, Special Olympics Serbia Sports Director, discussed with coaches the challenges and successes of developing football for players with intellectual disabilities in Serbia.
One of the highlights of the presentations was a discussion between coach exchange participant Steven Gardoni, a Special Olympics athlete and coach assistant from Arizona, USA; and Special Olympics Serbia footballer and coach assistant Dejan Radu who discussed their roles as coach assistants.
The coaches then travelled to Krusevac to watch a training session of a newly formed girls Unified Football team. Partners (team members without a disability) are recruited from Napredak Football Club and weekly trainings take place at the club. Approximately 50 Special Olympics athletes in Krusevac play football.
The highlight sports event for the guest coaches was attending a football competition in the village of Starcevo, near Belgrade. US Ambassador Mary Bruce Warlick opened the event which involved nine teams from 10 cities. Two Project Unify teams took part in a demonstration match. Four referees licensed by the Football Federation of Serbia officiated. Local television ran info spots on the competition throughout the day; the event was reported on the evening news.
At the end of the exchange program, the coaches, along with Special Olympics athletes from Pancevo and Jabuka, were invited to participate in a fun football day at the state-of-the art Serbian House of Football located in Stara Pazova. Coaches and Special Olympics footballers played a high-spirited match on one of the center’s six fields. They were warmly welcomed to the center by Igor Jankovic, Director, Basic Football, Football Federation of Serbia. The coaches ended their visit in Serbia with a tour of Red Star Stadium in Belgrade.