To Unify or not to Unify?
Respect, consideration and tolerance. These three values encapsulate the conditions under which experts from 44 football associations (FAs) came together in the Netherlands for UEFA Study Group on the topic of Football for All Abilities.
Practical demonstrations from top-class athletes and heated debate on critical issues characterised the three days in Zeist, the idyllic location of the Dutch FA’s (KNVB) training centre in the Netherlands…
Mid-way into the opening day of the event, a revelation of potentially seismic proportions was made: Where the KNVB looks to separate disabled players into respective categories, the German FA (DFB) favours a so-called Unified approach, which sees players of all abilities playing together.
In what appeared to be two completely opposing approaches to providing opportunities for disabled groups in society – from two very influential FAs – it soon became clear that there are actually two very good arguments for each.
The German context
Nico Kempf, Deputy manager at the DFB Foundation Sepp Herberger, explained that post-World War II Germany was very keen to set right the atrocities that were committed in the lead up to and during the War. One point of focus was ensuring that ample opportunities were provided to disabled people. Nico described how a parallel world for disabled football players was formed, affording them opportunities to play against similarly disabled players in a well-organised system.
The DFB soon realised, however, that players operating in parallel worlds did not integrate. Therefore, one of the prime objectives of Football for All Abilities was not being met, namely integration of disabled groups into society. In fact, the DFB sees it as discriminatory to exclude people that do not belong to specific disability categories. Hence why 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.
The Dutch perspective
Then there’s the KNVB’s philosophy, shared with us by Marcel Geestman, Manager of Disability Football, which is that opportunities to play football among players that share a similar disability is what the majority want. While the KNVB would acknowledge that unified football has its place in one-off matches or tournaments, it is not a sustainable approach because you lose the competitiveness, and therefore the meaningfulness, of the game.
David McArdle, Para-Football and Equality Lead at the Scottish FA, supports this stance. In his view, disabled players should remain in mainstream activity as long as possible. However, when this is no longer an option, either due to ability or their enjoyment, then Para-Football – as it is branded in Scotland – will allow them to continue to play the appropriate level of football in an environment which allows them to “compete, socialise and enjoy our beautiful game”.
Watching the national Cerebral Palsy football teams of England and Ukraine play in the IFCPF’s Cerebral Palsy Football European Championships, one could not mistake the element of competitiveness at play, especially having been close enough to pick up on the frustrated expletives being used by some of the English players! Indeed, elite players at the top of their games are highly impressive to see perform – as also demonstrated very well to us by, during a showcase session by a group of the best Amputee and Powerchair football players in the world.
But, as with all debates, delving deeper into the practices of UEFA’s member associations, it seems that things are not so black and white…
55 shades of grey?
We went to a disability tournament, organised by the KNVB and the Dutch Professional Coaches Association, which featured 390 differently disabled players. This included players with limited mobility and learning disabled players. The players had been selected by their clubs to play together in teams with other players that they hadn’t met before. The challenge was to work together as a team, drawing on the abilities of all, and progressing through the tournament. It unified disability, gender, age and, although lacking in non-disabled participants, we did spot an ex-pro goalkeeper helping a small blond girl in-between the sticks.
And, when asked about the competitive element in Germany, Nico explained that those seeking such games were able to find them, and that pathways do in fact exist to the elite national teams for various disability categories. However, he also pointed out that, in Germany, there plenty of opportunities to play competitively in Unified Football. Further to that, he underlined two things: firstly, that disabled players can often be seen to outperform non-disabled players. And, secondly, that you always have to consider the individual and try to find the best solution for him or her.
In search of the happy medium
Finding a happy medium between competitiveness and societal integration is the goal that all FAs seek. Sports clubs, found in the Netherlands, but also Belgium and Norway, provide a good example of this. It was explained to me by representatives of these countries’ respective FAs that, when players opt to play in ability-specific teams, they will still all wear the same shirt and belong to the same club. And, often, these clubs will hold social or community events, which offers a great occasion to bring together players from all of the teams under the club badge.
And in countries with small populations, such as Liechtenstein, Andorra and Faroe Islands, unified football presents a fantastic opportunity to bring disabled and non-disabled people together in unified teams, with a focus is on integration (and fun!).
All ears to the ground for continued success
Rather promisingly, all of the people that I spoke to agreed that the FAs are essentially reacting to demand from the grassroots. As Marcel explained, as grassroots specialists, they have their ears to the ground, and if they hear that there’s a real need 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 more attention, both for the inclusive values that football offers and the entertainment that it brings in its competitions. It is the expertise and dedication of those present here in the Netherlands and beyond, and the importance to implement what works best for those playing the game, that are contributing to the general continued success of this movement.