Special Olympics athletes shine at European Football Tournament in Tilburg

More than 150 players from across Europe were greeted as true champions at the Closing Ceremony of the recent Special Olympics European 8-a-side Football Tournament in Tilburg, The Netherlands.
Eleven women wearing orange and white football kits stand in front of a football/soccer net on a football pitch.

These 12 highly competitive teams displayed their skills, sense of camaraderie and competitiveness over the course of two days of action-packed football fun at the SVG Tilburg grounds.

A flagship event of Special Olympics European Football Week (EFW) and the ‘Keep Up With the Girls’ campaign, the event had a keen focus on promoting women’s football.

Peter Balmakers, Chairman & Coordinator of G-football at SVG Tilburg Football Club—which hosted the tournament—has been committed to developing the women’s game for players with intellectual disabilities for many years. In his role as G-football Coordinator, Balmakers oversees and coordinates the daily operations of four amateur teams consisting solely of players with intellectual disabilities. Needless to say, he understands better than most how a tournament like this can be crucial for raising awareness.

“Working with women and girls with intellectual disabilities is such a rewarding job,” Balmakers said. “We hope this tournament will bring about a positive change and boost confidence amongst these players, which they would truly deserve.”

Woman in a red t-shirt holding a colourful ball speaks to a man holding a phone with flags in the background.
Kerry Group volunteer Marta Szymanska speaks with journalist Jeroen Adriaanse at the Special Olympics European Football Tournament 2019 in Tilburg which was held from 24 to 26 May.

Special Olympics’ inspiring network of athletes and volunteers

Following the successful Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, Special Olympics and Kerry Group—the world’s largest taste and nutrition company—continued their fruitful partnership in Tilburg. Championing the rights and equality for all individuals, many of the Kerry Group employees volunteer at Special Olympics events, with the tournament in Tilburg proving no exception.

Marta Szymanska moved from Poland to the Netherlands a couple of months ago to work at the Tilburg-based Kerry Group factory. “The Poland women’s football team lost one of their group games, which is why I bought them some chocolate—to lift their spirits,” Szymanska said. “That is mainly my role here, I want to be a familiar face in the crowd and help the players out, to make them truly enjoy this wonderful event.”

A Gibraltar dream come true in the Netherlands

It was not only the volunteers made the players’ dreams come true, Special Olympics Netherlands also lent a hand by inviting Daniella Vinent, a Special Olympics athlete from Gibraltar, to join ‘Team Netherlands’. As Vinent is the only female football player in Special Olympics Gibraltar, she has never had the opportunity to play in a female-only team.

“It all came about during a conversation I had with Natascha Bruers, Sports Director Special Olympics Netherlands, and Mirek Krogulec who is Sports Director Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia,” Annie Risso, CEO Special Olympics Gibraltar said. “This was a terrific opportunity for her to play together with girls, and she has adapted so well—without knowing the language and her teammates.

“It makes me feel very proud to be a part of this team, and to finally be able to play together with girls. Everyone has been really kind to me. I am really living my dream.”
Daniella Vinent
Four women - three in red kits and one in orange and while - running after a football/soccer ball on a football pitch.
Special Olympics athlete Daniella Vinent (in orange and white kit) chases the ball in a match against Poland. Daniella is from Gibraltar but played for the Dutch team at recent Special Olympics European Football Tournament in Tilburg, The Netherlands.

Vinent was not the only player on a significant personal journey in Tilburg. Memories of an old knee injury came flooding back to Danish captain Camilla Juul Christiansen in the lead up to the team’s match against Latvia.

Team coach Peter Dufrense was eager to put his captain’s mind at ease. “I used the pre-match team talk to make sure she was mentally ready and let her teammates cheer her up, to boost her confidence,” Dufrense said after the game, which Denmark comfortably won thanks to some fine saves by Christiansen. “During this tournament, we all feel part of a big community, which means a lot to girls. It makes them enjoy playing football even more.”

Enough memories for a lifetime

On the final day of the tournament, both Célia Šašić, UEFA ambassador, and Kirsten van de Ven, KNVB manager of women’s football, were on the ground to support the players as well as the European Football Week 2019 and the ‘Keep Up With The Girls’ campaign.

On the importance of this tournament, Van de Ven said: “I am thrilled to be here. It is great to see such an event being hosted in the Netherlands. I am confident this event will inspire more women and girls with and without intellectual disabilities to start playing football. As with the #KeepUpWithTheGirls campaign, together we indeed play stronger.”

The duo also awarded medals to the winning teams during the Closing Ceremony. “The players who receive a medal will experience the same emotions as I did when I got my Champions League medal,” Šašić said. “Which is beautiful to see, as this tournament will hopefully stay with them forever.”

Two women stand holding a ball in front of an orange Special Olympics European Women's Football Week banner.
Célia Šašić, UEFA ambassador, and Kirsten van de Ven, KNVB manager of women’s football, were on the ground to support European Football Week 2019 and the ‘Keep Up With The Girls’ campaign at recent European Football Tournament in Tilburg, The Netherlands.