Every year in July, fans and athletes crowd Gothenburg's streets, cheers and chants ring in the air and pitches are filled with young footballers from across the world playing their hearts out. Among the 4,500 games across 110 fields, you will find 30 teams of Special Olympics players who are sprinting, shooting and scoring with the same passion and pride as every other player in Gothenburg. Welcome, to the Gothia Special Olympics Trophy!
Founded in 2011 by Swedish football legend Kim Källström, the Gothia Special Olympics Trophy category has become an established favourite within the Gothia Cup, the world’s largest and most international youth football tournament. Special Olympics athletes—who this year travelled from as far afield as Indonesia—are fully integrated into the event, sharing the same access to facilities, activities, transport and entertainment as every one of the 1,700 youth teams in the Cup.
According to Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Football Advisor, Andre Peeters, the Gothia Cup serves as a shining example of true integration. He says, “There is no separation between Special Olympics athletes and others—we enjoy the same facilities and opportunities. Special Olympics pitches are in prime position for spectators to stop by, support and learn about our organisation, and our athletes have the chance to socialise with teams from across the world. I see both our athletes and the other players grow and become more open from the experience.”
It is indeed a two-way street, with Special Olympics athletes benefiting from their experience at the tournament but also enriching the event with their participation. According to Gothia Cup General Secretary, Dennis Andersson, Special Olympics athletes, provide an example of the true spirit of football for all participants, as he noted to athletes at the final award ceremony: “When you play together, you show how football should be played. You show that we are really all one world and give us the best example of how football can unite.”
For Robin Gielen, aged 20, a Special Olympics athlete from Genk in Belgium, the Trophy provided a host of ‘firsts’—both on and off the pitch: “This was my first time on a plane, my first international tournament, my first time speaking English with people face to face and my first time meeting anyone from as far away as Indonesia”. Gielen – a keen computer game enthusiast—speaks English online with other gamers but surprised everyone, including himself, with his language skills in person. He added, “I feel like I’m on the other side of the planet! I found the whole thing really nice, really different to Belgium. I had the chance to speak with people from Germany, Italy and Indonesia. I made friends with the goalie from Indonesia and chatted to him about football and how our games went.” “I also talked to a girl…” Robin concluded with a smile, “About football!”
While it was Robin’s first encounter with the Gothia Special Olympics Trophy, many of those involved return year after year to enjoy this unique football experience. Referee Pierre Berg from Gothenburg has been volunteering at the event since its foundation, making this his ninth summer at the Trophy. He says, “The atmosphere here is perfect—lots of fun, laughing and hugs!”. However, just like in any tournament, the athletes are competitive and focused—meaning the referee has a serious job to do. “It’s my job to see when a player is starting to get angry and to cool them down—you have to have a certain level of sensitivity. Also, because it’s an international tournament, some players don’t speak English very well so you need to be able to express everything through gestures.” Berg looks forward to celebrating 10 years of the Gothia Special Olympics Trophy when he returns to once again to referee next year.
For over 40 years, the Gothia Cup—and its influx of young footballers and fans from across the world—has been a feature of the summer in Gothenburg. The Gothia Special Olympics Trophy has evolved into a key element of the event, allowing Special Olympics athletes—just like every other player—to enjoy the unforgettable experience of playing the largest and most international youth football tournament in the world.