Editor’s Note: Below is a guest blog post from Mary Davis, President & Managing Director of our Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Region.

Last week I attended the European 11-a-side Unified Football Qualifying Tournament which was held in Warsaw and brought together 200 athletes and coaches from 12 Programs. They played together for 3 days at Legia Stadium, home of Legia Warsaw Football Club – winners of this year’s Polish Football Championship. The 6 teams who qualified for the Global Unified Football Cup are: Serbia, Romania, France, Slovakia, Russia and the host Poland.

The Opening Ceremony took place in Torwar Hall in Warsaw. 12 Unified Teams entered the hall accompanied by samba tunes. The participants were led by Special Olympics friends and ambassadors: Katarzyna Frank-Niemczycka, Michał Żewłakow, Roman Kosecki, Jan Urban, Zygmunt Chajzer and Karol Strasburger as well as Embassy representatives. Anna Popek and Michał Olszański, the Special Olympics Ambassadors were Masters of Ceremony. The players and guests enjoyed the Brazilian atmosphere throughout the Ceremony and the spirit of Brazil encouraged the teams to give their best during the tournament and demonstrate the spirit of fair-play in order to qualify for the Global Unified Football Cup in 2014.

During the Tournament all participants were invited to take part in the Athlete Leadership Program in Unified Sports Workshop, led by Marek Sperski from UEFA. The aim of the workshop was to emphasize the equal participation of both athletes and partners in the training session as well as to inform the players and coaches about the different roles that athletes and partners can play in a Unified Team, such as being Coach Assistants. During the workshop players learned practical examples of how to diversify their unified training sessions. The seminar was led by a team from Kujawsko – Pomorskie region of Poland. The following day all delegations participated in the Athlete Leadership conference which was again honored by the presence of Michał Żewłakow and Christian Karembeu. Both guests addressed their speeches to the players encouraging them to demonstrate courage and give their best during the finals.

As a response to a question on why he joined the Unified team, one of the French athletes said: “I want to share my passion for football and what I am good at. I love my team and we all need to work together and respect each other to be successful.” A partner from Slovakia being asked the same question said: “I like the spirit of the team, we simply like each other and we want to play together.”

75% of the total budget of €250k came from the Government Ministry of Sport (€100k) and the Polish Rehabilitation Fund for People with Disabilities (€90k).

The event was covered by Polish National Radio and there was National Television coverage every day prior to the main news bulletin. On the 16th June there a 12 minute summary of the event was broadcast on two television channels. The tournament was broadcast on Polish television’s premier channel (TVP1).

The tournament was supported by Special Olympics Ambassadors and other football stars: Michał Żewłakow, Christian Karambeu, Andrzej Szarmach and Roman Kosecki. They observed both the finals and participated in the Closing Ceremony.

The Tournament was also highly supported by UEFA and other national federations who expressed their support in fostering respect and social inclusion as well as equipped some of the teams with professional uniforms. The Unified Football event was also considered to be a legacy of UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland. As Michał Żewłakow said: “Last year we had a great chance to experience EURO 2012. I truly believe that this event will be similarly unforgettable.” It was definitely unforgettable for all the participants.

Congratulations to the qualified delegations!

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