Fifteen Bangladeshi Special Olympics football players had their dreams realised on Tuesday after coming face-to-face with international football legend, Diego Maradona, in Fujairah.
The Argentine was due to play in a match with the athletes as part of the Special Olympics Host Town Programme, where delegations from different countries get to visit different emirates and experience local culture ahead of the Mena IX Games which kick off in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
The Bangladeshi team were excited to meet Maradona and play a unified football game with him but he would only be able to stop by to take team photos due to other commitments.
But the athletes’ spirits could not be dampened by the fleeting visit.
“I can’t believe that I just met with the living legend Maradona,” said Mahamudul Hasan, a 19-year-old partner to Sojib, a 22-year-old athlete with intellectual disabilities.
“He is an inspiration to all of us, his presence has given us a push forward to give more and play better,” he said.
The team consists of eight athletes with intellectual disabilities and seven partners, who are not disabled, and who have been practising together for around three months to prepare for the Games.
“Being part of the Special Olympics Games and having the chance to support people with disabilities had made me develop so many skills as we play together and learn from each other,” said Mr Hasan, who started playing football at the age of 11.
“I have two uncles with disabilities and that encouraged me more to participate and prove to them that nothing is impossible and that they can do anything they want with determination and will,” he said.
Mr Hasan said increasing public awareness about people with disabilities and highlighting their accomplishments will change society's perception towards them.
“They have the power to do anything if we teach them and spend time with them and they deserve more, and the society should know how to treat them with respect and equality and this is one of the reasons that made me join the team,” he said.
“My partner can’t speak and hear. At first we couldn’t communicate but with time we developed a way of communication and I’m very proud of what we accomplished so far,” said Mr Hasan.
Another partner to a Special Olympic football athlete said he joined the team to learn and to help others.
“We are here to play together and live together, to learn from each other and to help people with disabilities and support them everywhere,” said Shamim Hosan, the 20-year-old partner of Mizan, 23.
“Meeting with Maradona today is a dream come true and we didn’t believe it until we saw him in front of us, all the players were very excited and happy to shake hands with the football legend,” he said.
The friendly football match was held at Fujairah Football Club, where Maradona is manager to the emirate’s local team, and was organised by the Special Olympics Host Town Programme in collaboration with Fujairah Girls Centre and the Club management.
On Wednesday, more than 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities will be in the capital to take part in the Games.
The event precedes the Special Olympics World Games which will be the hosted in the Middle East and North Africa for the first time, in March next year, since being founded almost 50 years ago.