We’ve said it before, and we know that actions speak louder than words. World Football Summit is committed to making football an inclusive sport for everybody. On February 18, 2023, we’ll take these words into action on the football field alongside Real Betis Balompié and Integrated Dreams during what it hopes to become the “Most inclusive game in the world;” an initiative born at World Football Summit.
We reached out to Integrated Dream’s Chief Association Executive, José Soares to discuss this incredible initiative, the idea behind it, and how any club in the world can take a step forward into becoming more inclusive. You might remember him from a previous interview we had with him in June about the importance of inclusivity in football. and presenting the newest member of the WFS Awards family.
If you recall from our last edition of WFS Europe, we partnered with Integrated Dreams to create the Football Without Limits Award, which granted 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) Where is the origin of this idea of organizing the “most inclusive game in the world”? How did you get the idea to launch this project?
José Soares: This is an initiative that we were aiming to implement for some years. We always believed in the importance of raising awareness and providing a more accessible experience for disabled football fans and we thought that nothing better than organizing an event that could join all fans (disabled & non-disabled) around a common objective. It was here that the idea of beating the record of disabled people assisting live to a football match came to mind.
We all know that the history of football and sport, in general, is made of records (records of points, goals, trophies…) and that the passion for beating these records is what creates such a strong connection between the clubs/athletes and their fan base.
On February 18, when this match takes place in Seville, it will be the inclusion of disabled fans that will enhance even more the connection between Real Betis and their own fans. On that day, the fans and the club will be committed to not only winning on the pitch but off it. The goal is to welcome to the stands of the Benito Villamarín Stadium the highest number of disabled fans that a football club has ever seen before and that these fans will enjoy an inclusive experience while they are watching the match.
In this case, it’s also important to mention that, in order, to make possible this initiative, it was of key significance the participation of Real Betis Balompié (the selection of this club is not a coincidence at all and it’s definitely a club that is taking this topic of disability inclusion very seriously) and also World Football Summit from the very beginning; they always believed and supported this inclusive initiative!
WFS: What is the objective that you pursue? Is there any specific goal to reach?
José Soares: This initiative has mainly 3 main objectives. The first one consists in beating the global record of disabled people attending live to an official football match (the current record stands at 1074 people, during a match in Poland, in 2018). However, we also aim to raise awareness towards the importance of providing fair access for disabled people to football stadiums and also develop some innovative accessible practices that will be implemented by Real Betis during this Inclusive Match and that we hope that afterward it influences other football clubs to carry out similar initiatives.
WFS: Why does the football industry need this initiative?
José Soares: Football cannot continue to forget a group that, according to the most recent report of the World Health Organization, represents 16% of the global population! In this case, we should always address it through an inclusion point of view, but we should also have in mind the huge opportunity that the football world faces.
“I believe that it is a responsibility of all of us to make sure that nobody is forbidden to take part in football and that your level of ability is not an obstacle that stops you from celebrating the goals of your team together with your friends.”
Football is by far the most followed sport in the world and as a growing sport and industry, it cannot continue to forget a group that represents 1.3 billion people around the world and that is expected to grow even more in the coming years. In fact, when we consider the huge opportunity that disability might be for the football industry, we should always see it at least from 3 angles:
- The opportunity to grow your fan base: There are still very few clubs with fan engagement strategies tailored to attract this public
- The opportunity to innovate: We can say that in this area there is much to be done and also from another point of view, there are very few organizations from the football world involving disabled people in their innovation/brainstorming processes.
- The opportunity to increase your financial revenues: According to the most recent Return on Disability Report, disability is an emerging market that is larger than the Chinese market and represents $13 trillion of annual disposable income. However, if some services across the football industry remain not accessible to this population, it will be difficult for them to spend here their income.
Finally, when we talk about the market around disability, we should also have in mind, that we should not think only about the disabled people themselves, but also about their family and friends, that if you don’t have an accessible service, it will also be probably difficult for your organization to have them as fans/customers.
WFS: What makes Real Betis Balompié the ideal club/stadium for this event?
José Soares: Here we could mention different factors that led us to organize this initiative together with Real Betis. However, the main reason was undoubtedly the human factor. In fact, since the beginning, it was possible to perceive that everyone at Real Betis was committed to this event and that the topic of “inclusion” within this club is not a matter of ticking the box, but a key part of the strategy of the club.
Embracing disability and the open mind to treat disabled fans as any other who follows the club, was something that we saw from all levels of the club, from the General Management (special mention to the CEO, Mr. Ramon Alarcón in the launching of this initiative) to the team in charge of Disability Inclusion/Accessibility (Pilar Castillo Cid, José Luis Falcon, and Rafael Muela who were always totally supportive of this initiative).
Everyone was fully committed to making Real Betis “a club for all!”
Finally, we cannot forget to mention the fact that Real Betis is located in Sevilla was also a plus, as this is a city that is definitely committed to fostering the inclusion of disabled people and making it accessible for all (we cannot forget Mr. António Muñoz, the Mayor of Sevilla, who was also present in the launching of this initiative and supported the idea from the beginning).
WFS: Are there any small steps that any club in the world can take to start becoming more inclusive? Any advice that comes to mind?
José Soares: There are some small steps that are not difficult to implement and that can already make all the difference in terms of the experience that disabled fans will face when visiting your stadium. In this case, as a starting point, I would definitely recommend every club to appoint one person from their staff to be responsible for disability inclusion/accessibility within the club (having a Disability Access Officer should be a key role for any club) and also to follow the international standard policies implemented by the Centre for Access to Football in Europe, in collaboration with the main football governing bodies (UEFA and FIFA).
We are still in awe that this fantastic initiative for the “Most inclusive game in the World” that started out as a conversation between Real Betis and Integrated Dreams at World Football Summit is now a reality that will engage thousands of fans. Small actions have the power to change people’s lives, and we are very much committed to making football a safe space and an inclusive space for all fans out there. We want to thank José Soares for taking the time to answer our questions, and thank both parties for their tireless work on making this match possible on February 18th.
For us, the match has already been won, even if the record is not broken. It is these type of initiatives that also shape the future of football and hopefully, this future will be welcoming to everyone who wishes to be a fan of the game and enjoy it to its full extent.