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CAFE helps disabled fans' access

UEFA and partner CAFE – the Centre for Access to Football in Europe – are working closely together to improve facilities and the matchday experience for disabled supporters.

Disabled fans watching the action at a UEFA match
Disabled fans watching the action at a UEFA match ©Sportsfile

Thousands of disabled football fans love the game, and the issue of their access to matches, and how to improve facilities and the matchday experience for disabled supporters, has been given priority status by UEFA, which is working in tandem with its associated partner CAFE (Centre for Access to Football in Europe).

UEFA nurtures partnerships with a carefully selected number of organisations, particularly through its Football for all Abilities portfolio, which fosters the use of football as a tool for broadening the inclusion of players of all abilities as well as marginalised or excluded groups.

CAFE is a registered charity which is based in the United Kingdom and proactive across Europe. Its admirable mission is manifold: promoting equal access to all stadiums and their clubs; acting as accessible stadia advisors and sharing good practice; increasing disability and access awareness using football's influence; establishing a European network of local and national disabled supporters' groups; enabling more disabled people to follow and get involved in football at all levels.

CAFE's managing director Joyce Cook is a football devotee, and gave compelling reasons for the body's sterling campaigning. "I've watched matches where you could only see the players' knees upwards or only a third of the pitch because we were behind a dugout, or you could see nothing, or we were freezing wet and soaking cold because we were pitchside. You got to stadiums and nobody knew where the accessible entrance was, or you couldn't get into the ground. I've even been in stadiums where fans have had to lift us up into designated areas for disabled people."

Cook and her colleagues asked UEFA for help. UEFA understood and responded, and in 2009 awarded its CHF1m Charity Cheque in support of the CAFE project, heralding the start in earnest of a close relationship to begin improving the lot of disabled football fans. CAFE has been working with UEFA and its partners to ensure that many more disabled supporters can attend live matches. CAFE worked alongside UEFA and the host cities for UEFA EURO 2012 and the latest UEFA Champions League finals, advising on improved facilities and services. CAFE was also named official tournament charity for UEFA EURO 2012, UEFA making a €3,000 donation for each goal scored in Poland and Ukraine.

"The UEFA Respect logo that we're allowed to carry opens doors for us that would never otherwise open," said Cook. "Because UEFA cares about this subject, people are taking note. The clubs give us respect, and we've created a joint good practice document together – Access for All. That is now in 13 languages and it's already being recognised around the world as a real best practice standard."

As a result of the work between CAFE and UEFA the legacy of UEFA EURO 2012 is strong, with disabled fans going weekly to matches in Poland and Ukraine and a growing number of disabled supporters associations attached to clubs in the two countries. Now, a priority CAFE objective is to give crucial guidance to clubs across Europe in how they can help improve the experience for their disabled fans.

"Our job is to work with the clubs," Cook explained. "It's about building awareness and understanding, and being available to advise clubs, reassuring them that they will be better for improving access and facilities for disabled spectators, because they will be a more inclusive club and their non-disabled fans will appreciate it."

Part of CAFE's mission is also to promote the life-enhancing role that football gives to disabled people. "Football helped me get my life back," said Cook. "You get to be able to do the same as everybody else. Being a disabled person, it's about choice and opportunity and it's about being part of society. Football is the most popular sport on the planet. If you can be at a match with other people, your family, your friends, and amongst other fans, the feeling is just amazing."

In one development, CAFE encourages disability organisations to build a relationship with their local football club. "Disability can be caused by a sudden injury or disease which often has a life-changing impact. Sometimes that can be very hard at first. Attending a football match can even help to rehabilitate newly disabled people, to feel the same things as everybody else again," Cook reflected. "It can help rebuild confidence, and it's so important that disabled people are visible. Football has a magic like that; it changes things where other platforms don't. That message is powerful. We also want to use this to help raise awareness and promote real and lasting inclusion within our wider society.

"Our aim, first and foremost, is to ensure that many more disabled people across Europe can enjoy watching live football. On the back of that, we want to empower disabled people to come together and form groups around their clubs, and at national level to work with their own governing bodies and clubs to promote change."

The desire for progress is great, and optimism is abundant. "Within the next five years, I'd like to see disability access officers at every club in Europe and disabled fans going to matches at every club," Cook concluded. "If we reach the point where each club has engaged with this subject, then we will have made real progress."