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20 Special Olympics Thailand athletes and Unified Partners were thrilled to meet FC Barcelona legends Lionel Messi and Jose Manuel Pinto yesterday in Bangkok, sharing football skills and advocating for the inclusion of children with disabilities. This opportunity was made possible by the global partnership between UNICEF and FC Barcelona, aimed at improving the lives of millions of children by providing them with opportunities for education and sports.

The group was made up of 17 athletes with an intellectual disability, and three unified partners, from nine provinces across all regions of Thailand, with the youngest athlete at eight years old to the 24 year old unified partner. Some of the young people play on Thailand’s Special Olympics National Unified Football team, which has qualified for the 2014 Special Olympics Global Unified Cup in Brazil, organized by Special Olympics and FIFA. The Unified Team is made up of young people with and without intellectual disabilities who train, practice and play together on a regular basis, exemplifying how the common language of sport can dispel preconceptions and false ideas about intellectual disability.

At the session, Messi and Pinto fielded queries from the group, from questions proposed by Special Olympics Thailand’s Athlete Leadership Program. 19 year old Jeerawad Kom-iad wanted to know how Messi feels about playing with people with intellectual disabilities. “I have had many experiences playing with athletes of all disabilities,” replied Messi. “I feel that there is no difference interacting with all athletes, whether they have intellectual disability or physical disability, whether they are beginners or national players. Everyone deserves equal chance and I enjoy playing with all of them.”

The Barcelona players also played football with the athletes, concluding the session by signing autographs and taking pictures with the group. Unified Partner Navavee Naaee called the experience “beyond expectations”, and will never forget his moment, standing next to the best football players in the world. Athlete Nithithon Pholsen said that he will probably not wash the shirt signed by Messi, ever.

Dr. Naris Chaiyasoot, Chairman of Special Olympics Thailand, expressed his appreciation to UNICEF Thailand and UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, for providing the athletes and partners with this rare opportunity and helping to create more awareness in Thailand for people with intellectual disabilities.

In Thailand, there are an estimated 1 million people with intellectual disabilities, some 600,000 of them children. Studies have shown that providing children with intellectual disabilities opportunities to participate in physical activities and sports can help promote improved physical and mental development as well as communication and social skills. Since 2003, UNICEF Thailand has been working with Special Olympics Thailand to promote social inclusion for these children through sports training and competitions.

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