Velappan: Malaysia ready for Unified Football World Cup
With less than five months to go, the preparation for the inaugural Special Olympics Unified Football World Cup Malaysia 2014 is progressing steadily as the Special Olympics Malaysia (SOM) aims to bring together more than 2000 athletes and officials from 24 countries for one of the biggest sporting events in the country as well as the first of its kind in the world. A budget of RM20-30 million has already been allocated to host the event, which will bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities as team-mates from November 1-15 across five states in Malaysia. Even former Japanese international Hidetoshi Nakata has agreed to come on board as one of the tournament’s ambassadors. Clearly, no stone is left unturned to ensure a successful competition.
One of the leading advisers in this tournament is Dato' Peter Velappan, former General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation who played a huge role in getting the 2002 FIFA World Cup held in Japan and South Korea. In his capacity as the SOM vice-president, he tells FourFourTwo a little bit more about the tournament…
Not many people are familiar with the Special Olympics. Can you briefly explain about the organisation?
Special Olympics are an organisation that cares for the mentally disabled people. It is a movement founded in 1968 by the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the sisters of former US President John F. Kennedy, as she had an autistic sister. She would gather her neighbours and similar children who had special needs in her courtyard so that they can play together. Then, what started out as a small thing has now become a major event with more than 150 countries participating.
What are the organisation’s objectives?
Basically, we want to change the attitude and perception people have on the mentally disabled people. According to the World Health Organisation, three per cent of the world’s population are mentally disabled. We have a population of 30 million in this country, which means there are 900,000 people who are intellectually disabled. But do you see them often? No, because they are locked up in some rooms. And that is not the worst scenario, as we had cases where parents threw their kids into rivers or buried them.
So, we want to tell everyone that these people deserve normal lives. We want to give them a chance to develop and be like us. We also want to tell the parents that they are not alone and that we will help them to bring their children up.
But why sports, of all available channels?
Most of the mentally disabled people usually struggle to study and concentrate in classes. We have proof that through sports education, they can be part of the society and work in companies in 15 years’ time.
How did the idea to do a unified football tournament come about?
I am a member of the Washington-based Special Olympics International (SOI). One day we were discussing on the best way to spread awareness of the 3%. With my background in football, I suggested to do a unified football tournament, putting together the intellectually disabled people and the ‘normal’ people of the similar age and skill. I believe that if you learn how to play together, you will learn how to live together. People outside the organisation laughed at the idea, but if you see them play, you will not see anything wrong with them. In fact, they are as good as normal players and can control the ball very well.
How did Malaysia win the right to host the tournament?
It was supposed to be hosted by Brazil to coincide with the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but unfortunately they had to pull out at the last minute. Since it was my idea in the first place, the SOI told me that Malaysia would host it and I had to settle it myself! [laughs] So, we went to the Ministry of Sports and Youth to discuss with Khairy Jamaluddin. He was so excited and enthusiastically said we would do it. We also managed to get the green light from the Asian Football Confederation, Football Association of Malaysia, International Olympic Committee, Olympic Council of Asia and FIFA. Being the first tournament of its kind, it is a privilege for Malaysia to be the host. In fact, it will show that our country can host a global event.
But do you reckon we have the necessary facilities to host the tournament?
Look, we have one of the best facilities in Asia. In fact, before any other country in Asia did it, we set the standard of organising tournaments with our Merdeka Tournament, which was started by Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1957. It was the tournament to be in during the old days, with teams from all over the world participating. So, I am confident that we can host the Unified Football World Cup successfully.
You will be turning 79 soon. One might say that you deserve to enjoy a peaceful retirement after what you did for Asian football. So, why are you so personally invested in this project?
After I retired, I was approached by chairman of the Special Olympics Timothy Shriver to help spread awareness about the movement in Asia. I took up the role because it was my late mother’s philosophy to help the poor and needy. Before she passed away, she used to say: “My dear son, you have done well and have such a blessed life. Who would’ve thought you, who were born at a rubber estate, would become one of the top leaders in Asian football? But please do something for those who are not as lucky as you and help them.” So, that is what I have been doing.
How will you consider the tournament to be successful?
When I talk to people about it, they will immediately think of it as the Paralympic Games, which is clearly different from us as they focus on physical disabilities. Plus, they are well-established where every Olympic Games host city is obliged to host it a day after the Olympics. If people can differentiate us from them by the end of the tournament, I will consider it as a success.
Which country will win the inaugural edition?
[Laughs] Personally, I will support Malaysia because we are the host country after all. We have a good team, but it will not be easy because there will be 24 more teams from all over the world vying for the title. South American teams will be tough because they are born to play football, while African teams have players who can easily knock you flat. I do not know who will win, but it will definitely be exciting.
For more info, please visit the official Special Olympics website.