The first stage of the Special Champions League took place in Lisbon, Portugal, in February 2023, with 12 football teams from across Europe participating in the event hosted by Fundação Benfica, right next to the famous Estádio da Luz.
It was the first of a series of football events that make up the Special Champions League tournament, coordinated by Special Olympics Belgium, MasterFoot and the European Football for Development Network (EFDN), and co-funded by the European Union through its Erasmus+ programme, with Special Olympics Europe Eurasia supporting as expert partner.
Young female and male players with intellectual disabilities from AFC Ajax, Werder Bremen, Benfica, KAS Eupen, SD Huesca, Levante UD, NEC Nijmegen, Foundation 92, Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Everton and Special Olympics Portugal competed.
SO Portugal President António José Marques said: "It was with great enthusiasm that Special Olympics Portugal participated in this event where the power of inclusion through football was proven."
EFDN Project Co-ordinator Vicky Conde added: “Tournaments like the Special Champions League in Lisbon are the perfect example of the power of football to unite people from different backgrounds. It was a great experience and loved seeing how happy the players and the coaches were.”
As Special Olympics oversaw the rules of the tournament, fair competition was ensured under the divisioning process so that teams of equal ability player each other. Each team played five matches, with an awards ceremony taking place right after.
However, the tournament was not all about football with the social side every bit as important. For some players, it was also the first time they had been on a plane which made the tournament a truly memorable experience for all.
The day before the competition, the teams gathered to share a social event, including a meal. This was a great way for all players in the tournament to get to know each other.
There was also a final get-together at the Museu da Cerveja at the end, with all teams dining together.
NEC Nijmegen coach Job Bakhuis said: “The group has come closer together through the travel and football experiences at the Special Champions League; great to experience and see this up close as a trainer!"
SD Huesca player Noel Esteban added: “It's the first time I've travelled to Portugal and being able to go with my friends has been great fun, and even more so wearing the SD Huesca kit.”
The next Special Champions League will be hosted by Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, from 5 – 8 June 2023.
Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or HaDEA. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.