A group of young British footballers crowned world champions at the last Special Olympics have taken part in an historic match against their Israeli counterparts near Tel Aviv.
The athletes with intellectual disabilities touched down in Israel as part of the London in Tel Aviv Festival – becoming the first foreign delegation of Special Olympics (SO) athletes to compete in the country.
The 16-strong group trained at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s ground and bartered at Carmel Market, ahead of last Thursday’s big match attended by representatives of the Israeli Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the Peres Centre. The visit was sponsored by Nissim Levy and UJIA.
Michelle Carney, CEO of Special Olympics GB, told Jewish News: “This was an amazing opportunity to reunite the gold medal-winning team after the World Games, but also to offer a cultural experience and meet fellow athletes, which is so important In the lads’ growth as people and footballers.
“We try to develop our athletes as leaders, speakers and increase their employability skills. Some were told they would never amount to anything – and now they‘re winning medals. It’s incredible to watch their confidence grow and we need more people to know what awesome athletes they are.”
Athletes with an IQ under 75 are eligible to compete in the Special Olympics – which brought more than 7,500 people from around the globe to the World Games in Abu Dhabi – with many on the autistic spectrum. During last week’s match, the GB side was complemented by seven British olim without disabilities, and a group of prominent actors, artists and musicians joined the Israeli side.
And while Israel may have lost on the field, it clearly gained admirers off it including GB captain Joe McKenzie. The 25-year-old listed training at
Maccabi Tel Aviv as a highlight, adding: “Coming here has been amazing – we don’t get to spend time on the beach in Scotland. Everyone at home is jealous.”
Ryan Anstey, 23, said he “almost cried” at being reunited with his teammates in Israel, which he described as a “beautiful country”. As he joined players from both sides in signing a ball, which will later be auctioned for charity, he added: “After playing,
I want to go into coaching – I can learn a lot from them and them from me.”
Discussions are already underway about further collaborations between the two countries, including a possible return match in London, while SO is in contact with Kisharon and Langdon to explore involving more Jewish children in its activities.
The unique match was sparked by a conversation between festival founder Marc Worth and Sharon Levy-Balanga, CEO of SO Israel and a key organiser of the event. She said: “Our athletes are our teachers. Once we see our athletes are the same as us, we learn to appreciate difference. When I measure the impact of the Special Olympics, it’s about those without disabilities.” While the Special Olympics is apolitical, she hoped the GB team would tell those back home about the Israel they saw for themselves.
Former footballer Gidon Moliaff, the founder of sport goods company Mega Sport, said he was “excited” to host the event at his home.