When 14 African countries gathered in the town of Phokeng near Rustenburg in South Africa recently to compete in the Special Olympics Africa Unity Cup, football was not the most important thing on their mind – even though at stake was a place at next year's 2013 Special Olympics Unity Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Instead, feelings of togetherness and stories of self-belief helped along by sport were on display.

“My disability does not make me a lesser person,” said Namibian Deon Namiseb, who shared his emotional life story at the opening ceremony. When he was born in 1978, doctors said that he had several disabilities, and he was literally placed in a corner to be forgotten. He was taken in by an aunt, and since then, he has not looked back. As an International Global Messenger, the Namibian represents millions of athletes with disabilities, and he hopes to raise awareness by speaking out about the power of sports.

This has allowed him to leave his difficult past behind him, and he only looks ahead, saying: “Both my present and future are full of hope." Namiseb, who is a coach at the FIFA Football for Hope Centre in Katatura, is also full of praise for the Special Olympics. “It is a passion, a big passion. Tears are running, full of happiness, full of sadness. This organisation has changed my life through football."

'It has to start with us and it has to grow with us'
At the Unity Cup in South Africa, Namiseb said that when the teams entered the opening ceremony, they were all standing together. “You could see them uniting. And the thing that made this possible was our shared love for the game of football. This has helped us unite our beautiful cultures, our African drum beat and our singing and dancing. We are all one. Coming here to play football together will ensure that we learn to accept each other, irrespective of any disability.”

Namiseb went on to say that it was vitally important that people should get to know each others' cultures, should know where they come from and understand that people with disabilities can do many things that others can't do. “It is all about the youth – it has to start with us and it has to grow with us, so that we can change the mindset of people. It is not the disability that counts, it is abilities. This understanding will help us become the leaders of tomorrow, to spread the word of the Special Olympics and to make a change in our communities. It is important that all people – irrespective of their disability are treated equally, the way they deserve to be treated and the way you would like to be treated.”

The competition (3-6 October) was run as a seven-a-side tournament, with both male and female events. The participating countries were South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland, Uganda and Zambia. South Africa qualified for the final after beating Kenya on penalties in the round of the last four, while Tanzania beat Côte d'Ivoire in the other semi-final. In the championship match the hosts then managed a 3-2 win against Tanzania, while the Ivorians took third place after hammering Kenya 4-0. South Africa, Tanzania and Côte d'Ivoire will thus represent the continent in Brazil next year.

The competition follows on from the Football for Hope festival, which was held in Johannesburg during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. On that occasion 32 teams, made up of players from disadvantaged backgrounds, travelled from all corners of the globe to compete in the Football for Hope festival (see link on the right for more information).

A lasting feeling
Along with the football, there were several youth initiatives held to celebrate the Special Olympics and continue the legacy of the founding member, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started the movement in 1968. Since then, the organization has grown from a few hundred athletes to more than 3.7 million, who participate in year-round sports training, athletic competition and other related programs in some 170 countries.
One of the highlights of the programmes was the Youth Activation Summit, which was attended by people with, and without intellectual disabilities. The theme of the event was 'Dignity Revolution', which focused on respecting and treating everyone as equal. Opportunities were given to athletes and their parents to do presentations, to share their experiences and show what the Special Olympics has done for them.
Another highlight of the tournament was a Special Olympics Celebrity Challenge, which allowed Special Olympic athletes to compete against celebrities and footballing legends such as former Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe, Desiree Ellis, who captained South Africa's women's national team and NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo.
The 2012 Special Olympics Africa Unity Cup will be remembered for providing a platform for African nations to discuss and hopefully address the needs of over 20 million African people with an intellectual disability in the areas of sport, health, education and leadership, creating life-changing opportunities. And with such worthwhile goals, it is hardly surprising that football was not the only thing that got people talking.