Andreas Jakobsen and Oliver Svangren, teenagers who live with autism and Down Syndrome respectively, are passionate fans of Danish club Randers FC –and are working for the club within a social project offering internships to youngsters with learning disabilities.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
The Danish club Randers FC is a shining example of a socially responsible football club that seeks to bring the local community together with inclusion projects – and two enthusiastic young fans of the club are sharing a wonderful life experience by working for the top-division outfit.
Andreas Jakobsen (17) and Oliver Svangren (16), who live with autism and Down syndrome respectively, are involved at the Randers club as part of its ‘Mini Trainee’ programme – a project which offers youngsters with learning disabilities an internship within the club’s facilities, working in various roles.
Andreas and Oliver are two of a small group of youngsters who are making their own personal contribution to the smooth running of Randers FC, who are based in the central Danish city of some 62,000 inhabitants on the Jutland peninsula.
These two diehard Randers FC followers and football devotees are relishing their opportunity to enjoy a close relationship with the club that they follow passionately week in, week out.
Randers FC and Vesterbakkeskolen (VBS), the municipality’s public school for physically and mentally handicapped children aged 7 to 17, have been co-operating closely in order to give youngsters as many positive experiences as possible when it comes to football in general, and the Randers club in particular.
Andreas and Oliver work for Randers FC for a couple of days each week within ordinary school hours. Andreas is assisting the club with organising meeting rooms, setting up tables, chairs and all that is needed for events in the club’s corporate suites – while Oliver is helping the kitchen personnel in preparing and serving the player and staff lunches.
Both of them are loving the moment as they get close to the players and many other people at the club. A strong connection has been established between the youngsters, Randers FC and VBS, and the adventure is proving to be extremely positive for everyone involved.
Andreas and Oliver have football firmly embedded in their hearts. “I love football,” Oliver says. “Football is a very, very important part of my life,” Andreas adds.
The duo are members of their school team. After school hours, they play in grassroot clubs facilitating football for children with learning disabilities. Andreas also plays Special Olympics football during the week at a local club.
They both enjoy going to school and learning. In addition to their daily studies, the youngsters are being given important training in life skills. Oliver’s responsibilities, for example, see him in charge of ensuring that the food stock is full. Alongside his classmates, he organises the shop list and, accompanied by his teacher, he buys supplies for the week.
On the field, Oliver is a goalkeeper, and revels in the agility and reflexes that a goalkeeper needs. “I want to be a goalkeeper. I feel very good, and make good saves,” he reflects. “I want to get better and better.”
Oliver has two particular goalkeeping heroes – Patrik Carlgren and Frederik Due, the two custodians who perform between the posts for Randers FC – and he is also impressed by the exploits of Denmark’s talented national-team goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Andreas caught the football bug early: “I think I was six years old when I first had a pair of football boots on my feet,” he explains. “It is a sport that I like a lot. I like football because it is a simple and easy game to play.”
Football equally helps him overcome shyness. “One of my biggest challenges is that if I meet someone I know very well, it is tough for me to break the ice and start a conversation.”
“There are many forms of autism,” he adds. “The form of autism I have makes it hard for me to explain things and talk to other people. [But] if they want to talk about football, it is easy for me to join the conversation, because I like to talk about football.”
Both Andreas and Oliver are acutely conscious of the special bonds that playing and being involved in football can bring – both within their teams and together with the footballers that they cheer on from the stands in Randers’ multi-purpose stadium at every home match.
“Being a part of the whole thing means a lot to me,” Andreas emphasises, “and the fact that I work here has made me an even bigger fan than I was before.”
The youngsters eat with the players when they go to the club – “It’s a very big experience,” says Anders. “And just being able to sit with them and talk to them as if it were the most normal thing that the players want to talk to us, and be a part of your everyday life. That’s why we want to be a part of theirs. When we are happy, they are happy too.”
Oliver concurs wholeheartedly and succinctly. “It’s cool,” he says of his contacts with the team. “I like sitting at the same table as the players, they ask about me playing football.”
Randers FC’s admirable project, and the excellent collaborative work with VBS, is making a difference, as Andreas testifies. “Before joining the club,” he reflects. “I felt very isolated. I did not go out so much, and did not talk to that many people. But since I joined the club, I have started to talk a lot with other people.”
The club has a special feel for these young fans, who are often invited to home games free of charge. On various matchdays, they escort the players onto the pitch before kick-off – and when the VBS school team recently played in a nationwide tournament, Randers FC provided their official team bus free of charge to ferry the party to and from the event.
“My relationship to the club is that I feel I can always come here,” Andreas says. “There are always people to help me if I am dealing with problems in my everyday life. This is one of the reasons why it is such a good club. And the ‘Mini Trainee’ programme is something I really want to represent.” In life, and through playing football, Andreas now finds it easier to understand that it is normal to make mistakes – and you can always try again.
Football’s spirit of togetherness and openness has touched both youngsters profoundly. Oliver sums up his feelings in one perfect word: “Unity". Even though some people are different,” Andreas adds, “they can still meet around football.”
“It is a sport that can bring people together. Even on a cold winter night, people come to play football, because that is what football can do.”
“I play in a Special Olympics team with other boys with disabilities and other kinds of challenges. All the people around you in some way are in the same position as you – and we are all equal. I think that people are equal on a football pitch. In a way, it is a kind of community that we have.”
Andreas Jakobsen and Oliver Svangren have their own dreams and targets. In addition to wanting to improve as a goalkeeper, Oliver has a special dream – “I’m training for the Fladbro Run,” he says, talking about the yearly event, the Fladbroløbet, in which people of all ages run and walk several kilometres around the nearby Fladbro Forest. “I want to be better, and run to Fladbro.” He also aims to cheer Randers into Denmark’s championship round this season. “I want them to win, so they finish in the top six,” he emphasises.
For Andreas, the job at Randers FC has improved his self-belief, strengthening both social relationships and his school development. He is hopeful for the future.
“I definitely think that from day to day I feel more confident, can go out in the world and start a family, move away from home. I feel more ready than ever to begin a life on my own.”
Andreas has sound advice for people with autism: “Just get the best out of whatever you have. I think you can be whatever you want to be. Autism is not the biggest thing after all. It’s just a condition that some people have.”
Randers FC are proud to be associated with UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign and the focus on the “Mini Trainees” programme. “Andreas, Oliver and other interns light up whenever they are here,” says club CEO Henrik Jørgensen. “We have found out what it means to them to be involved in a club like Randers FC, and how they enjoy it – and we enjoy it as well.”