Joanne O’Riordan: Real Betis show the real meaning of inclusion in sport

Spanish club set an example to the sporting world by showing what is possible as they cater for 1,740 disabled people in their game against Real Valladolid

On February 18th, Real Betis sent out a statement to the world – welcome to the most inclusive game in the world.

‘Inclusion’ in sport is quite the buzzword with often very little meaning behind it. Usually, it meant there was a section designated for those with a disability. Rarely did that section cater for those with other disabilities rather than physical.

Real Betis, their foundation, the Portuguese NGO Integrated Dreams and World Football Summit decided to come together to create a game where quite literally everyone could come. The club, for example, has 1,600 members (socios) who have a disability, either intellectual or physical.

To support these members, Betis set up an inclusion department. Here fans can get wheelchair tickets with their companion beside them and onsite volunteers to assist. And in 2022 the club started giving those with an intellectual disability a kit which included noise-cancelling headphones and stress-release toys.


Integrated Dreams CEO Jose Soares has been planning February 18th for years. The original idea was to go ahead pre-pandemic, but given the tight restrictions in Spain regarding attendance at football matches, last week’s match against Real Valladolid was the perfect match day.

“I even wondered ‘would this really happen? Will this be possible? Will the club even deliver on it?’” explains Soares.

“And then, when we talked with Real Betis, they were incredibly open to this match. They even said, ‘yes, we should go for it. We really want to use this match as an opportunity to improve our accessibility, but also to raise awareness for this topic. We are super committed’.

“So now [we have] the record 1,740 disabled people who attended a football match. And we want that to grow soon. We feel that we can grow this number because we feel and believe that there is space for more and more disabled people. We can beat the record, to be honest.

“And obviously, we’re happy to beat it, but, more than beating the record, what’s really important and what really filled our heart was that opportunity to raise awareness of this topic [inclusion in sport], the opportunity to showcase this topic.”

Let’s set the scene for the most inclusive game in football. Real Betis, Integrated Dreams and World Football Summit initially met with various NGOs and organisations representing people with disabilities.

Real Betis players also got involved, with Borja Iglesias and Sergio Canales posting messages on social media stating they were looking forward to the game and welcoming everyone to the match.

During the warm-up, Betis players donned a kit which was screen printed with ColorADD, a sign code for helping colour-blind people to recognise colours. Before kick-off the players emerged in jerseys with their shirt numbers on their backs written in Braille. Each player had a mascot who also had a disability.

But the fun didn’t stop there. Before the game started, the club anthem, Himno de Real Betis, was signed from different areas in the stadium and was sung by 51,369 fans.

Just 90 seconds later Sergio Canales cut through the Real Valladolid defence with a ridiculous pass, and Juanmi applied the finish. Audio description captured this and fans with a disability cheered for their beloved team.

With more drama and Valladolid equalising, Real Betis went ahead again before half-time, with Canales dong the needful from the penalty spot.

At half-time, members of the Flamencos Amputados Sur CF, an amputee football team, participated in a penalty shootout to the delight of the fans. If you haven’t seen amputee football, go YouTube it.

Jose Soares, naturally, was in attendance. Either way, he’s a mad football fan, but adding his passion for inclusion into the mix, it was a day he says he’ll never forget.

“I think the mascot was one of the things that made the commentators on the TV mention the celebrations because it’s a strong image to see the players entering with disabled kids, because people with limited mobility, kids with intellectual disability, blind kids, there was perfect awareness with that powerful image.

“Anyone who follows sports either through the [mainstream] media or social media or by watching the [Real Betis vs Real Valladolid] match on TV, they now know that disabled people do exist, and it’s not just one or two people in the world. It’s 16 per cent of the global population, and we need to make sure that everyone can go to a match because as we celebrate goals, big occasions, and winning, we are super happy.

“We need to make sure it’s possible because not everyone still has this possibility, and we need to change it also. This now is where and when we need to win, but it starts with awareness. We need to be aware.

“We must highlight that this is not only for 16% [who identify as having a disability]. This is for 100%. Because so many people will benefit from this, like the elderly, pregnant women, children in buggies and so on. And it’s a great opportunity for clubs to increase their fan base, to innovate, and even increase their revenue. There’s a big opportunity for clubs out there.”

There is a long way to go. But, through collaborative efforts – Soares even references Inclusion Officer in the GAA Geraldine McTavish – people with disabilities can become an integral part of sport, not just by participating and watching, but actually working and engaging in other aspects of sport.

Real Betis are working on getting more volunteers trained to help fans with a disability arriving to games. They are also looking at the game just gone. Fans were given surveys and questionnaires about what they could do better and what they did well. Real Betis have also committed to hiring more people with a disability to become part of the club staff.

Fans were jubilant too. Sometimes, we forget that attending games is more than just attending games. It’s about independence, freedom, the ability to express yourself, and, more importantly, belonging to something that gives you a bigger purpose in your life.