What happens when you form a football team consisting of those with special needs and those without? Here’s the scoop from two participants at sports competition Play Inclusive.

Writer Tan Xian Li didn’t know what he was in for when he signed up to volunteer for Special Olympics Singapore. He chuckles, “I thought I was going to teach football to children.”

Instead, he ended up serving as a “unified partner” on a team that competed at annual sporting competition Play Inclusive 2019, which brings together athletes with and without special needs. A unified partner is someone who trains together with the Special Olympics’ athletes who have intellectual disabilities. The idea is that by playing sports together, everyone understands each other better and sees how sports experiences can foster inclusion in society.

Held between 24 and 25 August, this year’s Play Inclusive saw 700 participants contesting across 5 sports: badminton, basketball, floorball, football and goalball. Xian Li’s team emerged as first runner-up in their football division.

Above: Xian Li is pictured together with his Special Olympics teammate, Fhairul

Teammates and Now Buddies

One of the Special Olympics athletes whom Xian Li trained with was Muhammad Fhairulnizan, a student at Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) Delta Senior School. Fhairul is also currently serving out a job attachment at Swensen’s. With an IQ below 75, Fhairul’s intellectual disability makes it more difficult for him to reason and understand complex concepts.

Upon reflection, Xian Li recognises that he wouldn’t have met a friend like Fhairul had he not volunteered with Special Olympics Singapore. “Sometimes in society, there’s an assumption that people with intellectual disabilities are inferior. But when we play football, we are actually on the same level. In fact, Fhairul scored two goals for the team!” says Xian Li. Xian Li definitely realises that they have more similarities than differences. For one, they are both Liverpool fans. “Once, Fhairul came to practice in a Mohammad Salah shirt. I told him that he had to be my Andrew Robertson instead,” Xian Li quips, referencing two prominent Liverpool Football Club players with different yet critical team positions.

Keeping Calm and Carrying On

Both Fhairul and Xian Li have also learnt important soft skills through their shared footballing experience.

Xian Li stresses that it’s important to cultivate a calm attitude whilst playing, as even he gets hot-headed as a player. However acknowledging other people’s special needs provides him with perspective about how it’s even more critical to manage his temper. “The programme teaches all of us to be patient,” Xian Li concludes.

It’s also a heartening experience to watch the players grow. In fact, Fhairul is one of the most improved players. He used to lack confidence, but has developed his self-esteem through encouraging weekly sessions.

Playing on the team has also helped Fhairul learn to adapt and discover new strengths. For instance, when the coach asked Fhairul to change from being a winger to a left-back, Fhairul adjusted and noticed he had the ability to be a defender instead of just playing the attacker. He has also learnt how to compose himself, particularly in stressful situations such as when an opponent tackles him on the field. To understand and respond to the situation, he has learnt to take a few moments to focus on relaxing himself.

Overall, experiences like Play Inclusive offer an opportunity to gather, have fun and make friends with contest opponents. “It doesn’t matter if I’m first or second, as long as I did my best during the match,” Fhairul reflects. His coach teases that he’ll play another match next week if he could, and the team is excited for other opportunities for friendlies with other teams even after the festival ends!