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Football as a force for good
LAST week I reported how I was off to South Africa.
My visit was short and sweet – except for the return journey, which took me over 30 hours because it had to be brought forward and I had to take what I could get because of the immense amount of visitors to the World Cup.
I returned from Cape Town via Dubai with a five hour stopover in Dubai airport. But that cannot take away memories of a historic day.
Special Olympics were given the honour of having what was called the Unity Cup on the same pitch on which Germany would play Argentina later that day.
Imagine the excitement of the athletes – there were 16 from 16 different countries – and also some of the celebrities as they were bussed in with a police escort, coming down the exact route the internationals would take later in the day.
To actually go on to the pitch was something they will never forget.
The day before the game, my main task was to organise a training session and, like any coach basically retired from the professional game, it was something to relish.
But some of the personalities, even looking at them, were out of place.
For instance, a young lady from China called Zhang Ziyi, an actress famous for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, amongst many other films, and apparently named as the most influential woman in the Times 100 magazine for China.
She was an extremely nice lady, not the tallest by any means, and was followed around even in the hotel at meal times by an agent, a manager and a camera crew.
On the same team was a gentleman called Dikembe Mutombo, who is a retired NBA basketball legend and would you believe is actually 7ft 3in tall.
However, the training session soon told me that both him and Miss Ziyi should stick to their day jobs, along with some of the other names who made up the squads such as the chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola company, who have sponsored Special Olympics since its inception 42 years ago.
In addition, Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics international was on the team I looked after.
There were also professionals – most famous in his home country, Lucas Radebe, and also Clarence Seedorf, who has been the star of BBC TV’s World Cup coverage, as well as Teo Cubillias and Steve Sumner.
Steve embarrassed me be telling me in front of a lot of other people I had helped forge his career.
But before I could collect any real credit he said he was a young apprentice at Grimsby Town when I arrived and I gave him a telling off about his behaviour and did not renew his contract.
He admitted in hindsight I had been right and he eventually had to emigrate to further his football career.
But he finished with an international career from 1976-1988 with a record 105 appearances for New Zealand and has recently been given FIFA’s top award, the order of merit, which he received along with Johan Cruyff.
Also I was fortunate to have the services of Chris Kamara, the well known Sky presenter, who helped a lot in the warm-ups and coaching on the day as well as being an effective defender.
And my team had to defend well considering one of our players, who in no way could I sub, was the South African President, Jacob Zuma.
On the training day, which incidentally was conducted in temperatures of around 70 degrees, which surprised us all considering it was supposed to be winter, the players had to stay out much longer than we wanted as the President’s entourage had not arrived.
Eventually, it was fairly obvious he was coming as two helicopters appeared overhead, sirens were heard from miles away and about ten cars roared up.
I was summoned to a room along with Mr Shriver to meet the president.
It turned out to be a wonderful experience.
This gentleman, who spent time in the prison on Robben Island along with Nelson Mandela and who apparently came from such a poor background he could not even read or write when he went on the island, was not only self educated but helped start football games in the prison.
Now he is president of his country. A fantastic achievement.
The games on the island started with two teams from two opposite political parties.
Eventually, they went to a league and all politics were forgotten as everybody mixed in.
As Tim Shriver was quick to point out, this is in many ways a similar thing to people with learning difficulties – they are in a prison of sorts and the Special Olympics gives them the ability to do what the prisoners on Robben Island did.
I urged President Zuma when he was acknowledging and thanking Mr Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, for allowing this game to take place, the first ever of its kind, to ask to make it a regular occurrence at big events such as every World Cup in future and maybe Champions League finals.
After all, every country in the world has people with learning difficulties.
The reaction the teams got from the crowd was fantastic.
They came down the tunnel like the pros, we lined up on the pitch and messrs Blatter and Platini came out and went down the line shaking hands with everyone.
The game ended in a diplomatic 2-2 draw.
The president thanked me and went to hand me the captain’s armband back, but I told him to keep it as a reminder of the magnificent thing he had taken part in.
One which, to many, many families around the world, was just as important as the World Cup is to others.