Yussif Ahmed Heath plays football in Qatar Foundation’s Ability-Friendly Program. He really has a deep affection to play the sport, even though with his physical disability. The 11-year-old was born with Cerebral palsy-hemiplegia, which causes paralysis on one side of the body, but still finds great joy on the pitch. That joy turned into ebullience recently when he met retired football legend David Beckham in Doha’s Education City.

“He was good. You know he’s a player from England? And he was awesome,”

High praise from Yussif for the 47-year-old who fielded questions from the children and participated in a series of football drills and a penalty shootout. The ex Manchester United and England international may have been the special guest. Still, Yussif quickly caught the attention of everyone in attendance at the special event hosted by the Qatar Foundation. The program was born from the idea that football, like most sports, still has to make some strides when it comes to being accessible to players with disabilities.

“It’s understanding you need to have small groups and cater for small groups, for their needs.

I got [Yussif] smiling for five minutes after an hour, and you go, ‘Oh well, he might not want to do it, but at least he went from not being here to today being here for five minutes,” validated Ryan Moignard, a Special Needs Football Coach at Qatar Foundation.

“Let’s hope tomorrow or the day after we can do 10 minutes.”

The Ability-Friendly Program has 175 participants with many names on a waiting list. While many players are children, the program is inclusive, with the eldest participant in their mid-50s. The foundation offers a unique program called ‘Coaching the Coach.’ Participating in this program motivates coaches to become disability-confident, which helps them deliver sports training to various abilities.

“Ideally, if we can get someone in a comfortable environment, the room feels suitable for them. The equipment is suitable for them too, and then, as a coach, you feel confident that you can deliver things,” added Moignard.

The forthcoming FIFA World Cup can be an excellent catalyst for change by improving accessibility in football. As the world’s intentness turns toward Qatar, 2022 will be the year when fans with disabilities can enjoy the games in the same way as everyone else.

Qatar Foundation’s Engagement and Activation Manager Brooke Reid says a lot of preparation has gone into guaranteeing a barrier-free fan experience will make this the most accessible international sporting event in history.

“The beauty for Qatar 2022 is that accessibility has been at the heart of the way it’s been planned and developed,” she said. “So there’s an accessibility forum that QF is a part of – from stadiums, infrastructure, hotels and the fan experience, making sure everyone has an equal opportunity to enjoy the matches and their time in Qatar.”