To unify or not to unify?

Should people with disabilities train and play football with non-disabled players? A recent UEFA seminar held in the Netherlands opened the debate.

Football for All Abilities – disability football tournament in Barendrecht
Football for All Abilities – disability football tournament in Barendrecht ©KNVB

Experts from 44 national associations and seven international federations belonging to UEFA’s Football for All Abilities portfolio recently took part in a UEFA Study Group Scheme seminar in the Netherlands. Held in Zeist – home to the impressive headquarters of the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB), the event featured practical demonstrations by top-class athletes and animated debate on the most fundamental of issues.

Midway through the opening day, there was a revelation of potentially seismic proportions: while the KNVB looks to separate disabled players into relevant categories, the German Football Association (DFB) favours the ‘unified approach’, which involves players of all abilities playing together.

As those two highly influential national associations explained the rationale for their completely different approaches to providing opportunities for disabled groups in society, it soon became clear that there are actually very good arguments for each approach.

Nico Kempf from the DFB’s Sepp Herberger Foundation explained that, after the Second World War, Germany had focused on ensuring that disabled people had ample opportunities in life. He described how a parallel world had been established for disabled footballers, giving them opportunities to play against similarly disabled players in a well-organised system.

Seeking the happy medium
The DFB soon realised, however, that having players operating in parallel worlds did not meet one of the primary objectives of Football for All Abilities – namely, the integration of disabled groups into society. In fact, the DFB now considers that excluding people who do not fall into specific disability categories actually constitutes discrimination. Hence, its current philosophy ensures that, if friends or family members want to play together on the same team, they have ample opportunities to do so.

In contrast, the KNVB’s philosophy, as explained by disability football manager Marcel Geestman, is that the opportunity to play football with similarly disabled players is what the majority of people want. While the KNVB acknowledges that unified football has its place in one-off matches or grassroots tournaments, it is not regarded as a sustainable approach, because the game ceases to be competitive – and therefore meaningful.

David McArdle, para-football and equality manager at the Scottish Football Association, supports this stance. In his view, disabled players should remain in mainstream activity wherever possible. However, when this ceases to be an option, either because of physical ability or a lack of enjoyment of the game, para-football – as it is branded in Scotland – allows players to continue to play at the appropriate level, in an environment that allows them to “compete, socialise and enjoy our beautiful game”.

Watching the English and Ukrainian national cerebral palsy football teams competing in the 2018 IFCPF European Championships in Zeist, which coincided with the seminar, the level of competitiveness was plain for all to see. Similarly, seminar participants were also treated to a highly impressive demonstration by some of the world’s finest amputee and powerchair footballers – elite players at the very top of their game.

However, as with all debates, when you delve a little deeper, it seems that things are not quite so black and white, with neither the Netherlands nor Germany adopting an entirely uniform approach in this area.

Disability football in the Netherlands
Disability football in the Netherlands©KNVB

Integration and fun
Indeed, delegates also attended a disability football tournament in Barendrecht organised by the KNVB and the Dutch professional coaches association. A total of 390 players took part – men and women of all ages with various different disabilities, including mobility problems and learning disabilities. Those players had been selected by their clubs to play together with others they had never met before. The challenge was to work together as a team, drawing on the abilities of all players, and progress through the tournament.

When asked about the competitive element in Germany, Nico explained that people seeking such games were certainly able to find them, and that there were indeed clear pathways to the elite national teams in the various disability categories. However, he also pointed out that Germany offers plenty of opportunities to play unified football at a competitive level as well. Further to that, Nico underlined two things: first, that disabled players can often be seen to outperform non-disabled players; and second, that you always have to consider the needs of the individual and try to find the best solution for each person.

Ultimately, all national associations are looking for that happy medium between competitiveness and societal integration. With that in mind, delegates from the KNVB, the Royal Belgian Football Association (URBSFA/KBVB) and the Football Association of Norway (NFF) talked about sports clubs in their respective countries, explaining that even if players opt to play for ability-specific teams, they all still wear the same shirt and belong to the same club. And often, when those clubs organise social or community events, players from all teams come together under the same club badge.

No uniform approach
In countries with small populations, such as Liechtenstein, Andorra and the Faroe Islands, unified football is a fantastic opportunity to bring disabled and non-disabled people together in mixed teams, with a focus on integration and fun.

Many of the national associations also agreed that they are essentially reacting to demand from the grassroots. Grassroots specialists have their ear to the ground, and if they hear that there is a real desire for unified teams within their communities, they will react to that. For now, at least, this debate will not be a stumbling block to progress. The topic of Football for All Abilities is gaining increasing amounts of attention, both for the inclusive values that football promotes and for the enjoyment its competitions provide. The growing success of this initiative is testament to the expertise and dedication of everyone who attended this seminar in the Netherlands, as well as all the people who are working so hard on the ground across Europe.

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 181

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