· by World Football Summit

World Football Summit is committed to making football an inclusive sport for all. For this reason we have contacted Football For All’s Chief Association Executive, José Soares, to discuss how society and the industry can work together both to include as well as involve those who suffer a disability, and the reasons as to why our Football Without Limits Award helps shine light on the matter.

Football For All is a programme focused on giving everybody a chance to play football, including those who normally would not be granted this opportunity due to disabilities, both mental and physical. This is why we have partnered with FFA and created the Football Without Limits Award which will grant recognition to those with outstanding work in the realm of inclusivity.

This article features as part of the latest edition of WFS Digest, our insider’s guide to the latest and most relevant thoughts and practices from within the football industry. You can subscribe to WFS Digest HERE.

World Football Summit (WFS): Why do you believe the world of football needs the “Football Without Limits” award?

José Soares: According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people (around 15% of the global population) have some form of disability. It’s also important to mention that when we talk about disability, we are talking about a group that is responsible for over $13 trillion in annual disposable income (it’s a bigger market than China) and is growing every year.

Despite these impressive numbers, disabled fans still represent less than 1% of the football fans attending live matches and according to the most recent report produced by Level Playing Field, one third of disabled fans still feel unable to attend live sport events.

On the other hand, it’s also very uncommon to see disabled people working in football so this affects the entire ecosystem.

We believe, that to continue growing and being a leading sport worldwide, football needs start considering disability as an opportunity to innovate and reach new markets and not only as a social commitment.

There are organizations already doing great work in this field and we want to give them the opportunity to showcase the impact they drive.

These were the reasons that drove us to collaborate with World Football Summit and launch the “Football Without Limits” award; we are convicted that this award will push disability into the agendas of the main football bodies.

WFS: The world also needs leaders who drive initiatives related to inclusivity in sports. What are the traits a good leader needs in your opinion? Who is an example of a great leader in sport?

José Soares: In my opinion, there are three key traits leaders need:

  • Make sure they represent everyone and not only A or B.
  • They need to inspire through example
  • Be someone that can listen to others and has the humility of recognizing when they make mistakes.

When I think about a good example of a leader, the first person that comes to mind and that I modeled my behavior against, is Joyce Cook.

It was Joyce that almost 20 years ago lifted her voice towards the importance of starting to promote a better access of disabled people to football stadiums and that everyone should have the right access to follow their team. Through her resilience and inspiring attitude, she convinced some of the most relevant football bodies to start developing policies towards disabled fans.

WFS: What would you ask of leaders in the football industry so that inclusivity is more present in the “day to day” activities of clubs, leagues, or federations?

José Soares: I believe that we all have a role to turn football into a more inclusive sport for disabled people.

The first wave of change always starts at home and in this case, the request that I would have for the leaders of the football industry is that they start by driving change in their local communities.

This applies to all kinds of leaders, from the biggest clubs and brands to the grassroots organizations, we can all contribute for a more inclusive football.

Improving the accessibilities of your stadium provides an opportunity to attend a match to many people that before couldn’t live the experience of other home fans.

The same applies to a sports clothing brand that designs adaptive clothing to a local sports club when they need a kit for a disabled football team.

Inclusion in football should not depend on the size of your organization, geography or even culture.

We should all be advocates for this cause; everyone deserves the opportunity to be a true fan.

WFS: Inclusivity is so much more than that related to “difficulty to access a stadium or a venue.” Can you help us understand the full scope of what “inclusivity” implies?

José Soares: I could not agree more, it goes much beyond the access to a stadium/venue. In fact, when addressing the topic of inclusion in football, we mean that all the services/activities of a specific football organization should be accessible for everyone and not just for some segments of people:

  • Think of the fan who will not be able to watch the highlights of the Champions League because of blindness
  • Listen to the roar of the crowd when the start players score a goal because of hearing impairment
  • Go to the park to mimic a star player’s iconic goal celebration because of an inability to walk…

I could go on, but just like the fact that you do not have to go to a stadium to be a fan of sport, inclusivity goes far beyond the ability of attending a venue

WFS: Do you believe technology can help drive greater inclusivity in sport? If yes, how?

José Soares: Technology is already contributing to a more inclusive path, but we should make sure that the new technological trends that are rising in the sports world, such as fan tokens, metaverse, virtual reality or e-sports can be enjoyed by any fan.

The other key aspect to have in mind is that collaboration and partnerships are essential to ensure that technological innovations benefit everyone. A great example was the partnership between Virgin and Southampton FC, that led to the creation of augmented reality headsets for partially sighted fans of the team.

WFS: It seems that to drive a big change in the world we need to rely on policies developed by governing bodies, but we are of the belief that it is on the contrary; the little things done by regular people are what drive the needle. Do you agree? If yes, what can we do in our day-to-day to see more inclusivity in sport?

José Soares: Totally agree! The first step for change is to believe in this cause and show empathy; while everyone wants to experience a game for themselves, we must realize that unfortunately not everyone has the proper access to watch their team at the stadium or to follow the content that their club publishes every day in their social media pages.

By embracing an inclusive mindset, you will start developing small actions that can have a strong impact in people living near you. This goes from volunteering to help transport disabled fans to watch to a match of their team at the stadium, to simply organizing accessible football training sessions for the local disabled community.

Small actions have the power to change people’s lives…

If you’re interested in applying or know any projects that could be worth putting forward for any of our categories, don’t hesitate in filling out our Awards application form that you can find for each specific category, or sending it in the direction of those who you think could be suitable candidates.