Win or not, these footballers will make history
The New Zealand football team has left for the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin where, winners or not, it will make history.
Whatever the outcome of the tournament, it is the first New Zealand team made up entirely of footballers with intellectual disabilities to compete in the seven-a-side event. In previous World Games, New Zealand has competed in the Unified Football competition, which includes players without an intellectual disability.
The team is planning an all-out attack strategy at the games, which are being held from 17–25 June.
Head Coach Matt Woodason, from Otago, says the footballers are a bit nervous about playing against global powerhouses like Germany and Brazil, but he is impressed with the quality of his players and is confident they can cause a few upsets.
“Looking at our squad, it looks like Todd (Neal, Hutt Valley) will be in goal and the rest all want to be strikers, so we may need to have a chat with the boys that we need to do a bit of defending against some of those big teams,” says Matt, who got asked to help out his local Special Olympics club 13 years ago and like many volunteers got hooked.
The 11-strong football team makes up nearly a third of the New Zealand squad of 39 athletes, supported by 22 coaches and volunteers. The squad was to leave for Germany in early June for a pre-tournament training camp near Munich.
More than 7000 athletes from 190 countries will compete in 26 sports in the world’s largest inclusive sports event, the top competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
The football games will be played in and around Berlin’s famous Olympiastadion, constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games.
The Olympiastadion will also host the sold-out opening ceremony with nearly 80,000 fans welcoming the teams to Berlin.
“We hope to play in the main stadium, but we are still waiting for the final schedule and opponents,” says Matt. The first four days of competition will be used for grading to determine the divisions in which each country will compete for the medals.
“Of course, we are going to there to win, but I have told the boys that our first aim is to score a goal,” says Matt, who has been preparing a team scattered all over the country.
“As we only have a couple of training camps, it will be hard to work on their skills, so we have been focusing on moulding a team and talk about not having any regrets. As long as our guys give it 100 percent, it doesn’t really matter where we finish,” says Matt.
Many of the New Zealand squad have paid employment and have been very busy saving and fundraising to pay the $18,000 each athlete needs to contribute towards travel, accommodation, training camps and support staff.
Special Olympics New Zealand does not receive Government funding, but Otago footballer Sheamus Neilson has managed to raise the entire sum by himself. “He works at Farmlands, and they have been terrific and chipped in $5000 to help Sheamus get to Berlin,” Matt says.
Caption: The New Zealand Special Olympics Football squad at a pre-World Games training camp. Back row: Matt Woodason, Shane Hewitt, Kyle Scandlyn, Louis Edwards, Conor McCarthy, Todd Neal, Bruce Neal, Ryan Ziad. Front Row: JP Roux, Matthew Just (no longer attending the World Games), Connor Spinks, Ash Coley, Finn McNally andCole Jennings.