Anurak Warit is among children and youth who meet and practise football with FC Barcelona’s Leo Messi and José Manuel Pinto at an event held in Thailand to promote social inclusion for young people living with disabilities.
BANGKOK, Thailand, 23 August 2013 – Anurak Warit traveled nearly 700 km from his hometown in northern Thailand to Bangkok for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and José Manuel Pinto.
“It was very exciting to meet Messi and Pinto today,” said Anurak, aglow after having tried to kick a football past Mr. Pinto and having had his jersey signed by football great Messi, who also serves as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Anurak is 22. He is a member of the Special Olympics Thailand Unified Team, which comprises young people with and without intellectual disabilities who train, practise and play football together. The FC Barcelona players “encouraged us to be good athletes and to practise hard,” he said.
“It is no different”
Anurak was one of 20 children and youth with intellectual disabilities to attend an FC Barcelona–UNICEF event that featured Mr. Messi and Mr. Pinto, aimed at promoting social inclusion for young people living with disabilities. Both of the professional footballers took time off from their team tour schedule in Thailand to talk to and play football with the young people, who had all come to Bangkok from different areas of the country for the event.
Asked by one of the boys if he had ever played football with disabled children before, Mr. Messi replied that he had done so “many times” and that “it is no different than playing with any other children”.
The children on hand for the event were representative of the millions of children across Asia who are living with disabilities. Children living with disabilities often face challenges because of social exclusion and lack the opportunities provided to other children.
The children and youth who attended the event participate in football and other sports training and competitions organized by Special Olympics Thailand, a non-governmental organization, with support from UNICEF. Some of the children, including Anurak, will be competing at the 2014 Global Unified Cup in Brazil that the Special Olympics and FIFA are organizing to promote social inclusion and equal participation for young people with intellectual disabilities.
Speaking at the event, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for the East Asia and Pacific Region Dr. Isiye Ndombi said that “children with disabilities can demonstrate remarkable abilities if they are given proper care, opportunity and support”.
Dr. Ndombi added that providing opportunities for children living with disabilities to compete in sports and other physical activities is extremely important because it “can help to enhance their life-long physical and emotional development and also serves to improve their communication and social skills”.
Partners for children
Vice President of the FC Barcelona Foundation Ramon Pont said the event symbolized the strong global partnership between FC Barcelona and UNICEF. The partnership is committed to providing millions of children with the opportunity to receive an education and learn positive values through an integrated programme of physical education, sports and play. Since 2006, FC Barcelona, which features the UNICEF logo on its premier football jersey, has also been providing 1.5 million euros annually to support the work of UNICEF.
After answering questions posed by the children, Mr. Messi and Mr. Pinto spent time playing football with them. Mr. Messi told the children that in order to become a great football player, “you have to give up a lot. If you love the game, you have to fight for it and you have to want to learn each and every day.”
The hope is that, for the children, the experience of meeting the FC Barcelona stars will help inspire them to continue to compete in sports – and to face down obstacles in life.