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UEFA Grassroots Awards: 4th Category rewarded for promoting disability football in Italy

Quarta Categoria (4th Category) is the 2020 UEFA Grassroots Award winner for Best Disability Initiative after opening the door to organised football for thousands of disabled players.

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Founded in 2016, ‘Quarta Categoria’ - now called the Divisione Calcio Paralimpico e Sperimentale (Paralympic and experimental football division) - is responsible for arranging Italy’s first major football tournament for players with a cognitive impairment, intellectual disability or other mental health issues.

The project, created at regional level in collaboration with various grassroots clubs, agencies and local non-profit organisations, has grown into a national initiative with a consequent increase in participation.

More than 80 professional clubs are now involved in supporting teams, along with national disability organisations.

Special focus: Opportunity for thousands

Sara Guedri and Christian De Mase of Empoli are among the thousands of players to benefit from the initiative
Sara Guedri and Christian De Mase of Empoli are among the thousands of players to benefit from the initiativeGetty Images

Quarta Categoria’s goal is to encourage participation in disability football and its first milestone event was in January 2017 with a seven-a-side national football tournament, involving nine teams, each of them ‘adopted’ by a professional club.

By 2018/19 there were 116 clubs involved from across 11 regions of Italy, ensuring an opportunity to play football for some 3,000 players.

With only one month of training possible since February owing to the lockdown, Quarta Categoria’s clubs have provided alternative activities including a FIFA e-sports tournament, an online athletic preparation course for team coaches and an online platform to enable ‘team’ training from home.

In their own words: ‘Emotions, friendships and satisfaction'

Coach Marco Di Pirro (left), with Vladimiro Latini (centre) and Vincenzo Papadia of Blue Star
Coach Marco Di Pirro (left), with Vladimiro Latini (centre) and Vincenzo Papadia of Blue Star Getty Images

"These were boys and girls with cognitive communication difficulties," says Marco Brunelli, general secretary of the Italian Football Association. "They had a social life in which they weren’t able to play football like everyone else.

"The questions seemed stupid and the answer seemed obvious: ‘Yes, of course you can play football.’ But in reality, at that moment there were no organised activities within the federation for those boys and girls."

Coach Marco Di Pirro has seen the benefits to players first-hand. "I’ve been the coach of [ACPD] Blue Star [Roma] for over ten years," he says. "The fundamental characteristic of my team – and it’s something I’m really proud of – is that on the pitch they embody the values of a proper team, i.e. they show respect for the kick-off times, for the laws of the game and the kits."

It is a sentiment echoed by Lazio for Special coach Ranieri Romani, who adds: "We’ve been participating in this tournament for four years, in the Quarta Categoria. For me, playing football helps these great guys to feel the great emotions of being part of a group, to build lifelong friendships, and who knows, maybe even to have a certain amount of personal satisfaction."

Best Disability Initiative 2020: Silver and Bronze winners

Silver: Special Power League – football league for disabled children run by Health Life Academy Star League (Croatia)

The Croatian Football Federation has taken big strides in the past two years with the launch of the Special Power League for disabled children. Working together with an NGO, the Health Life Academy, it arranges four tournaments annually, involving more than 200 disabled children. This is a national, long-term project, rather than a one-off activity, with all top-flight clubs joining forces to use football as a platform for the social integration of disabled youngsters.

Bronze: Special activities for special kids (Ypatingos treniruotės) (Lithuania)

‘Special activities for special kids’ is a grassroots football initiative for kindergartens aimed at children with physical and mental disabilities. The Lithuanian Football Federation’s grassroots department, in co-operation with kindergartens, schools and Special Olympics Lithuania, created a festival involving a variety of simple physical activities, many football-based. The initiative was launched in Vilnius five years ago in partnership with FK Žalgiris and is now supported by several professional football clubs with players assisting the children by demonstrating skills and presenting them with prizes.

What are the UEFA Grassroots Awards?

UEFA launched the annual Grassroots Awards in 2010 to reward excellence and shine a light on some of European football's unsung heroes.

Each of our 55 national associations are invited to nominate candidates each year, with award winners then selected by UEFA's Executive Committee, following recommendations made by the organisation's Grassroots Panel bureau and Development and Technical Assistance Committee.

More about the UEFA Grassroots Awards

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The UEFA Grassroots Awards: Best Grassroots Leader - Jessy Surmava

The UEFA Grassroots Awards: Best Professional Club - Werder Bremen

The UEFA Grassroots Awards: Best Grassroots Club - Frederiksberg Boldklub