Soccer really is a sport for all
2019-08-01 13:05:39 -
Ken McCue

When I finished my soccer playing career, I experienced many emotional moments in the cauldron of the Lansdowne Road stadium. From watching the then 18-year-old Diego Maradona perform magic for Argentina in 1979, to the 1996 Rugby Peace International between Ireland and Barbarians organised by colleagues, anti-sectarian campaigners and former Irish rugby internationals Hugo MacNeill and Trevor Ringland, the famous ground was often a centre of wonder.

Being a guest at the recent Football for All graduation ceremony was up there with those great moments for me.

Co-ordinated by Jose Soares, programme director of the Football for All Leadership Programme, the event this year chose Dublin as the stage to honour graduates of the first global programme designed to promote employability, entrepreneurship and networking for disabled people in the game of soccer.

The first edition of the programme, which comprised people with a wide range of disabilities from 11 different countries, started in November 2018 and will continue into the future to incorporate half of the Fifa-registered countries by 2022. The programme is also designed to deliver measures in the human rights strategy of soccer’s world governing body.

The graduates were presented with parchments by Dr Brian Kerr, former head coach of the Republic of Ireland and Faroe Islands men’s national teams and founder of the Football for All initiative in the old FAI. The guest presenter was Uefa researcher Prof Paul Kitchin of Ulster University, while both Brian and Chris Whitaker, senior disability manager of Sport England, had powerful and inspirational messages for the large audience. Chris provided an overview of the programme and his personal involvement in the Paralympic movement along with launching the Football for All Alumni organisation.

The reception following the presentations gave me the opportunity to meet with and hear the achievements of the graduates from places as far afield as Mali, Armenia, the USA and Russia — every one of them a champion and role model in sport for people of different abilities.

Typical of the group is Jason Browning, a coach with Lightning Powerchair Football Club in Northern Ireland. The club was set up to provide opportunities for people with physical disabilities to take part in powerchair soccer in the North at a competitive level. 

The club competes in an all-Ireland league, the AIPF Premiership, usually on a monthly basis, and has players who have represented Northern Ireland at international level.

Jason has done the same himself, and is also the first wheelchair user in NI to have completed coaching badges to a national level with the Irish FA, going on to become player-coach of Lightning PFC in 2017.

The challenge of balancing the role of coach and player creates an interesting dynamic for many of the graduates, including Jason.

“On one hand, this allows me to be very involved during sessions, creating an additional rapport with the players and allowing them to relate to their coach more — as I also use a chair,” he said.

“It shows them that the tasks at hand are achievable for them. While separating myself from a friend/teammate role to one of a coach/leader is a balancing act which took me some time to perfect, thanks to continued exposure to this situation, I believe I have achieved this and can get great results out of my players due to the unique situation.”
A number of Jason’s charges have represented NI at the recent European Championships, helping to secure a fifth-place finish. This makes NI one of the top teams in Europe and has qualified them to participate in the 2021 World Cup. 

In the meantime, apart from scoring goals for Northern Ireland, Jason is committed, along will all of his fellow graduates, to making sure that soccer stadia worldwide comply with the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (Cafe) which is now the standard directive adopted by Fifa and overseen by its chief member associations officer, Joyce Cooke.

With the new soccer season kicking off soon in Northern Ireland, Jason looks forward to watching his favourite club Glentoran from his regular position in the wheelchair section of The Oval in east Belfast.

- The Football for All Leadership programme is managed by Integrated Dreams of Portugal. They have a new call for candidates for 2019/2020 at

Ken McCue is an intercultural officer with Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari).
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