Hapoel Jerusalem Fc – The Unified Special Needs Team
The Unified Teams project, which was the first of its kind in Israel, features two amateur football teams made up of fans of the club, who play alongside people with disabilities. One team is for fans and people dealing with emotional disabilities, and the second team is for fans and people dealing with mental-developmental disabilities. The project includes joint training once a week led by a professional coach. Participants are provided with uniforms and full training equipment. The program offers a response to exclusion, stigma, fear, and stereotyping among the general population towards excluded populations, and breaks down barriers and stereotypes toward disadvantaged populations. Football provides a secure, stable, and enjoyable framework for the participants, who for years have never missed a meeting. Friendships are formed on and off the field and the participants see themselves as part of a community of supporters, often attending the professional team’s matches, where they don’t feel excluded. Following in our footsteps, other clubs have established an additional eight integrated teams throughout the country, and an exciting tournament for all the teams is held three times a year.
Following the success of the adult teams, in 2021 Hapoel Jerusalem founded the “Football for Everybody” project, involving four groups for children on the autistic spectrum (classified as having medium to high functioning), and children who need emotional support (attention and concentration problems, anxiety, weight issues etc), and learn in a special or integrated framework. The children take part in an enjoyable and empowering weekly football group that integrates special needs children with non-special needs children. Football in a safe space empowers and strengthens the participants’ feeling of belonging and social acceptance. The groups are small (maximum of 15 participants per group), and each group is assigned various trained coaches, and reinforced with students specializing in care for children on the spectrum. The participants receive uniforms and football accessories, as well as a child-and-parent subscription for the professional team’s matches, so as to increase their sense of communal belonging. Each child undergoes a preliminary diagnosis by the professional team to assess their suitability. The club is in constant contact with community leaders throughout the city in order to create a relationship with the families of potential participants in the project.