Ali Al Balushi and his teammates are hoping to take home the gold at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.

The Special Olympics UAE Football Team player is determined to win big when he and the rest of the team kick off at the World Games on home soil on 14 March next year.

Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 is part of the UAE’s National Vision 2021 that highlights full integration of people of determination into every part of society.

Preparations are already well under way, with the UAE team looking to build on its positive performance at the inaugural Unified Football Cup, which was held in Chicago, USA, from July 17 to 21, as part of Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations.

A determined and talented athlete, Ali scored in the UAE’s 8-0 defeat of Canada in the group stages and is now eager to face teams from all over the world when they travel to his home country for next year’s Special Olympics World Games.

“Playing in the Unified Cup in Chicago was one of the proudest moments of my life,” said Ali, 24. “I am so happy that our national team reached such special levels.”

The Special Olympics UAE Football Team placed third in the competition, after resounding victories in the group stages of 8-0, 4-0 and 7-0. They narrowly missed out on a place in the final after losing on penalty kicks to Uruguay in the semi-final.

However, Ali is confident his teammates can go all the way in Abu Dhabi next year.

“Without the penalties we would have been in the final, but this is the nature of a football game; some days you win, other days you lose,” said Ali.

“I think it is important to participate in international competitions like the Unified Cup as it helps to refine the talents of the UAE team, especially before the World Games in Abu Dhabi next year.

“I would like to participate in the next tournament to represent the UAE and to bring joy and smiles to the faces of my friends, loved ones and my family,” he said.

Sport, particularly football, has helped to transform the lives of Ali and the other players who make up the Special Olympics UAE Football Team.

Greater promotion of Special Olympics Games and Unified Sport in general is a key part of Abu Dhabi’s goal to break down society’s misconceptions of people with intellectual disabilities and what they can achieve.

Unified Sports is one of the foundations of Special Olympics as it promotes the importance of involving people with intellectual disabilities in sports alongside players without. Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 is set to be the most unified Games in history and will provide an inclusive experience for athletes of all abilities.

Nouh Al Sewaidi has played football since he was a child when he would kick a ball around his neighbourhood with friends.

His passion for sport, and his skills on the football pitch, have been honed by dedicated coaches at various sporting clubs in the UAE, including Sharjah Football Club and Al Shaab Club in Dubai.

“My family always supported me and encouraged me to continue my football career and to join Sharjah Football Club,” said Nouh. “Those years of experience helped me to develop my football skills.

“Football is a social game where members of all abilities cooperate and support each other throughout the game. Everyone can play and have fun on the pitch.”

A gifted defensive player with the ability to read the game and stop his opponents from getting into goal scoring opportunities, Nouh was shocked when was asked to participate in Special Olympics IX MENA Games Abu Dhabi 2018.

“I couldn’t believe when I heard that the UAE national team would like me to join them,” he said. “This was my dream and it was coming true.”

Nouh used the experience of playing in Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi to help him perform on the field in Chicago during the Unified Cup.

“I can say that we showed a lot of skill in the tournament. I know that the way we played in Chicago was evidence that we will be able to win a gold medal in Abu Dhabi.”

Nawaf Saeed shares his teammate Nouh’s optimism and is confident of success at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.

“We spend a lot of time in training at our summer camp,” says the Special Olympics UAE Football Team player.

“We are confident and hope to be able to win the championship and raise the flag of our country as Abu Dhabi will be the hosting this big special event.”

Nawaf was part of the team that won silver at the Special Olympics IX MENA Games Abu Dhabi 2018 in March. The 21-year-old left-sided player still cherishes his memories of the game, and his runners-up medal.

“It was a tough game against an Egyptian team that had special players and was the big favorite to go all the way,” he said.

“I still remember the moment I got the ball. The crowd, who were standing and cheering with enthusiasm despite the difficulties we faced, were amazing.”

Abdullah Saif Al Suwaidi said Special Olympics IX MENA Games Abu Dhabi 2018 prepared the players psychologically and physically for the Unified Cup in Chicago.

“I will never forget how we worked together with such a great team spirit,” said the Special Olympics UAE Football Team player.

“This allowed us to come third. Now, our ambition is to win gold in the World Games 2019.”

Abdullah and his teammates are counting down the days to the start of the Abu Dhabi Games.

“We are excited and have already been to training camps in preparation,” said the 23-year-old.

“It will be an international event witnessed by thousands of people in the UAE and by millions globally on TV. We understand this great responsibility and are looking forward to it.

“I would like to thank our Great Leaders for providing us with the chance to represent the UAE in front of the world and to raise our flag high.”

Now Nawaf, Ali, Nouh, Abdullah and the rest of the Special Olympics UAE Football Team are looking forward to Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 and, most importantly, encouraging members of the community with intellectual disabilities to change their lives for the better through sport.

“I would advise every person of determination in the community in the UAE to take the opportunity to join a sports club now,” said Nouh.

“Do not hesitate, these clubs have the knowledge and skills to help you reach your goals and achieve your ambitions through sport.”

Abdullah added: “Sport is food for the soul. Playing makes you feel like a different person and inspires you to achieve the impossible.”