Hassam Zogaib, Special Olympics Paraguay, takes a break in one of the chairs of the hotel lobby; he’s already wearing his official CONMEBOL jacket and badge. In front of him, adjusting the frame of his phone camera, lies his interviewer: César Becerra, Sports Director at Special Olympics Paraguay. He presses record.
“Hi Hassam! You are a few minutes away from going to the Mario Kempes stadium, where the CONMEBOL Sudamericana finals will take place. What is going through your mind?”
If he’s nervous, you can barely tell. But the happiness and beaming pride he’s feeling are a bit harder to hide. There’s no hesitation when he answers.
“For the first time in 19 editions of this tournament, I’ve been given the opportunity to be one of the referees invited to participate in this unique final.”
He finishes by thanking CONMEBOL and Special Olympics for “doing everything in their power and believing in me.” The next time we see Hassam in front of a camera is when he’s participating as one of the invited referees for the final CONMEBOL Sudamericana match between Lanús and Defensa y Justicia. Thousands of football (soccer) fans in the region might not know it, but they’re witnessing a historic moment: a Special Olympics athlete, a person with intellectual disabilities, as one of the special guests performing their role as part of the referee team---an unprecedented, positive change not just in soccer, but in society.
Hassam, 34, joined Special Olympics when he was 14. A fan of sports, he played soccer for years, but in November 2011 he performed as a referee for the first time. This marked the beginning of his impressive international participation, which includes the Los Angeles 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games; the Uruguay 2016 Special Olympics América Cup; and the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, among others.
CONMEBOL believes in the power and reach soccer has on society, and their partnership with Special Olympics seeks to promote real inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Under these tenets of dignity and equality, they extended Hassam this historic invitation to be the first referee with intellectual disability in Latin America to participate both in the final matches of the CONMEBOL Sudamericana Cup and the CONMEBOL Libertadores Cup, achieving an important milestone in the history of inclusion.
But Hassam is an example outside the playing field as well. As a Special Olympics Athlete Leader, a role he executes with pride, he inspires people with and without intellectual disabilities to give it their all and work together for a more inclusive world. He has been a part of the Regional Athlete Leadership Council, representing the opinions and concerns of thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities in Latin America.
Those that have met Hassam, in Paraguay or abroad, always notice the warmth of his heart, the professionalism of his work, his amazing gift of remembering facts and figures (about football or any other topic he’s passionate about!) and the notable drive which pushes him forward in creating a better world for all.
“An inclusive world is a place where people with and without intellectual disabilities can work together. It’s important to me, because it helps eliminate discrimination.” Through his work and accomplishments as athlete leader and referee, Hassam clearly demonstrates that a better world is possible.
To learn more, please see the following media coverage about Hassam’s CONMEBOL work.
ABC Color - Zogaib, in the final
CONMEBOL YOUTUBE - Sudamericana | Lanús vs. Defensa y Justicia [0-3] | HIGHLIGHTS