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In Cuba, celebrating differences through inclusive football

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Children attend a free soccer clinic near a camp for people displaced by the January earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Thursday, June 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

Cuba, May 23, 2016: As Joana, 14, and her team prepare for the final round of Cuba’s first inclusive football tournament, it is hard to believe that just one year ago she had never played the sport before. Her team represents the province of Artemisa, and is composed of some of her classmates from the Hermanos Montalvo Special School in the Caimito Municipality, as well as students from the Carlos Gutierrez Montalvo Secondary School. After a series of wins, they are now one of the final teams in the tournament.

“Matches have been the best! We’ve won them all!” says Joana. “We are tired, and also proud. We have trained hard to be here.”

oana's team on the pitch during a game. The inclusive football team comprises players with disabilities and players without.
oana’s team on the pitch during a game. The inclusive football team comprises players with disabilities and players without.

All children have great potential to learn and thrive, but children with disabilities are often excluded from many aspects of society. And though it may sound simple, true inclusion of children with disabilities in school programmes and activities can be difficult to accomplish. The new tournament aims to change that by centring on football – one of Cuba’s preferred emerging sports, very close after pelota, the popular name for baseball. As a sport that can be played almost anywhere with minimal resources, football is an ideal choice for an inclusive sport programme.

Inclusive teams, tough competition

Competition in the tournament is tough, starting from the first round. The entire process lasts a whole year, and all the schools in Cuba have the opportunity to participate. Each inclusive team is composed of 11 students between the ages of 12 and 14 – four of whom are living with disabilities. Any student can participate, as long as she or he is able to play football.

The teams are mixed, girls and boys, and everyone who joins in must have the time to train,” says one of Joana’s teammates. “It is during the trainings that we get to know each other and we understand the capacities and talents that each of us have. We organize our tactics based on this.”

Over the course of a full week, Villa del Yayabo in Sancti Spiritus hosted more than 260 children from the qualified teams, together with their teachers and trainers. During the time that they weren’t participating in the sport competition, they had the chance to enjoy local leisure activities. “The zoo! They took us to the zoo! And we have eaten ice cream, and made lots of new friends,” says Joana.

Joana on the field during a football game. Before this year, Joana had never played football before.
Joana on the field during a football game. Before this year, Joana had never played football before.

Lexter, 13, a classmate of Joana’s, is confident that they will return next year. “Playing with girls has been fun,” he says, adding, “The teacher would tell us: ‘Don’t be afraid, jump like a kangaroo!’”

Blurring the differences

For Lexter and his teammates, teachers and trainers, it is beyond their imagination that they could have made it this far, let alone have the chance to win the whole tournament.

“It’s magnificent to have the opportunity to link children with disabilities with their peers, it’s a fundamental way to integrate and develop values,” says Yoel Esperon, 42, a physical education specialist and leader of Joana and Lexter’s Artemisa delegation. “The main message is that differences don’t matter, that we are all the same after all, and that we have to support each other. Of course, even if this programme is integrated into the school programme, specialized attention requires an extra effort. But it’s worth it.”

Attention to children with disabilities is one UNICEF’s key priorities in Cuba. Within the subsystem of inclusive education, 37,025 children and adolescents with disabilities attend special schools in a transitional form, while 9,892 attend inclusive classrooms. Often, teachers lack the education, pedagogical tools and the support to successfully foster an inclusive learning environment for children with disabilities. UNICEF contributes to the training of teachers, the sensitization of families and the strengthening of social inclusion through sports practice.

Joana and Lexter with another teammate. Their team has made it to the final round of Cuba's first inclusive football tournament.
Joana and Lexter with another teammate. Their team has made it to the final round of Cuba’s first inclusive football tournament.

For many of the children playing in the tournament, this is the first opportunity they have had to leave their towns and provinces and sleep outside their homes. “It’s a unique experience for many of them; beyond the match results they learn to live together, to share and understand each other,” says Esperon. “They take these lessons back to their school friends and families, and slowly the differences begin to blur.”

When we ask Joana what awaits her back home in Caimito, she tells us that she will attempt to tell her parents and teachers everything she has experienced and that she is sure to continue training and playing football. “When I play football I have many friends,” she says.