Jamaica's football wins praise from Special Olympics International

Senior staff reporter

Saturday, July 21, 2018

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CHICAGO, Illinois — Sports director for Special Olympics International Christian Guiralt touts Jamaica as the benchmark for the Caribbean, underlined by their invitation to the inaugural Unified Football Cup.

Special Olympics Jamaica (SOJ) is the only nation from the region competing at the tournament, which includes 16 male and eight female teams.

“I think Jamaica, in terms of the Caribbean, is the most important country in terms of football, and that's why they have a team here,” Guiralt, in charge of football operations related to the Unified Cup, said.

“They have been working very hard for many years. I have been to Jamaica a couple of times to witness football events in different parishes and communities, so it's very clear that Jamaica has a real development programme in terms of football.

“We want to use Jamaica as a reference for the rest of the countries in the Caribbean. We have a good football programme starting in Puerto Rico, also in Dominica Republic, and we are also doing the same in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Guiralt told the Jamaica Observer the foundation for development will be fortified through planned partnership with Concacaf, the regional arm of FIFA in charge of football in North, and Central America and the Caribbean.

“This year we are going to sign an agreement with Concacaf, the regional football confederation, and the one of the priorities is going to be the Caribbean.

“I'm pretty sure that with the technical support and the expertise of Concacaf and with everything that is happening in unified sport, we are going to have countries involved in Special Olympics Unified Football,” he said.

The Unified Football Cup is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the first-ever Special Olympics Games staged at Chicago's Soldier Field Stadium in 1968.

“We plan to have this event every four years. It's the first edition, [that is] celebrating also our 50th anniversary, and it's spectacular that we are playing football to celebrate our history.

“The plan in the future is to have 16 male teams and 16 female teams, and we're trying to co-ordinate with the Special Olympics regions to have a qualification process, so each team should play in its region to qualify to the next [Unified] Cup.

“We are aware that for some regions it's not going to be possible to have a qualification event, but maybe very soon. We have to keep working, because football is the most popular sport for Special Olympics in terms of team sports, and is one of the sports that is present in most countries. We have to keep working and working to grow football and to provide more international football opportunities,” Guiralt emphasised.

The Jamaicans have lived up to their billing, finishing second behind Nigeria in Group C to advance to the semi-finals of division two.

Greg Epperson, sports director for Special Olympics North America, was impressed with their display while expressing satisfaction with the opportunities the tournament has provided.

“It's just a lot of pride in what we saw on the field — the sportsmanship, the team work, the effort and the no-quit mentality.

“I think it's been an incredible opportunity not only for the teams that are here but also for the message it's sending about the abilities and capabilities of our athletes and partners,” Epperson told the Observer.

Unified competition provides athletes with intellectual disabilities the chance to compete alongside and against athletes without disabilities.

Intellectual disabilities can either be acquired or genetic, and can include cases of cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, autism, and traumatic brain injury.

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