- Gerald Mballe left war-torn Cameroon on a dinghy
- Football played an indispensable role in integrating him into Italian society
- Didier Drogba watched him at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019
It was over. A few terrifying, traumatising days on an over-capacity dingy, among screaming babies and ailing adults, crossing the choppy Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Sicily, ended with Italian authorities rescuing a group of African refugees and granting them asylum.
Gerald Mballe had been forced to flee his native Cameroon as gun wars between separatists and security forces annihilated its villages. He spent a year trekking through Niger, Algeria and Libya before finally entering the Mediterranean in search of a new life in Italy. But the coastguards’ sirens didn’t signify the end of his battle.
“I encountered so many difficulties when I arrived in Italy,” the 20-year-old told FIFA.com. “Everything was just so new for me. They spoke a different language. There was still discrimination. I felt different. I felt barriers everywhere.
“Football played a big part in helping me integrate me into society. Football is a universal language. You don’t need to speak the same language to play together. I would play in the parks and then Luigi [Petrillo], my mentor, invited to help coach a team of people with intellectual disabilities.
“I received such a warm reception from them. I felt people accept me without looking at my skin colour, my eyes. It was so real, so pure. I regained self-confidence, self-identity. I felt part of a group. I felt that people were listening to me.
“Because I’m not a professional coach, I used my own soccer skills to teach people. And I tried to give them responsibility and encourage them, telling them, ‘You can do it’. I told them that if we’re passing each other the ball, then we’re a team, and as a team we can do anything.”
And so inspirational Gerald was in his role that he was afforded the honour of being one of the 7,500 athletes from around 200 nations to play at this year’s Special Olympics World Games. So, how did an intelligent, multilingual lad end up appearing in a competition for people with intellectual disabilities? Well, one of the football competitions Italy entered at Abu Dhabi 2019 was a seven-a-side event for mixed teams of people with and without intellectual disabilities, which, in the words of organisers, “encourages inclusion, friendship and unity.”
Gerald explained: “When I heard I was going to the Special Olympics World Games, I was extremely happy, so excited. I had previously been denied the chance to go to a tournament in the USA because I had been a refugee and couldn’t get a visa.
“I must say a big thanks to the Special Olympics, because they made the impossible, possible. They’re fighting for inclusion, for integration. They said, ‘If someone wants to integrate themselves into society, why does there have to be so many difficulties for him to get a visa?’ And they made it possible.
“It was a wonderful experience, an experience full of emotion, an environment full of determination. Seeing people being positive, not looking at your skin colour, just concentrating on playing, on winning, I saw the power of football. It’s a universal language that puts souls together. It was an unbelievable experience.
“It’s so important for the people with intellectual disabilities. In my country, people like this are hidden inside their houses. In Italy they still face discrimination.
“Football makes them feel responsible, worthwhile. They learn skills, teamwork, determination. Playing on the unified teams is great because it shows that nobody is different, nobody should be discriminated against. We're all playing to win together, helping and encouraging each other.
“And playing at the Special Olympics makes them feel like they are [Andrea] Pirlo and [Alessandro] Del Piero playing at the World Cup. It’s so good for them, for their self-esteem. It was so nice seeing how excited they were in the airport and the whole time we were in Abu Dhabi. We got to meet Didier Drogba and Cafu, which was amazing."
The 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan™-winning captain and iconic Ivorian, along with former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, and musical megastars Luis Fonsi and Avril Lavigne, were ambasadors for Abu Dhabi 2019, which carried the motto 'Meet The Determined'.
They simply don't come more determined than the inspiration that is Gerald Mballe.