Home and away

Among the 60,000 football fans packing out Rajamangala National Stadium for a Manchester United football match earlier this month were 36 children with intellectual disabilities.

Kids with intellectual disabilities from Suphanburi Panyanukul School attended a match between Manchester United and Thai Singha All-Star earlier this month. PHOTOS COURTESY OF UNICEF

The atmosphere was buzzing. Many fans arrived in the club's trademark shirts, waving balloons, scarves and banners. The children, who were invited to the game by the Manchester United Foundation and Unicef, had seen the football stars on TV, and were among the most enthusiastic in the audience.

"It's fun to be here," Pichit Panachai, 17, said at half time. "It's more exciting than watching a game on TV. I want to see number 18 [Ashley Young] score!"

Pichit studies at Suphanburi Panyanukul School, a boarding school in Suphan Buri attended by 400 children with intellectual disabilities. The school concentrates on teaching children how to look after themselves, interact with others and learn vocational skills. It is also involved in the sports training and competitions organised by Special Olympics Thailand, a non-government organisation supported by Unicef, which is working with 16,000 children with intellectual disabilities in Thailand.

In Thailand, it is estimated that a million people have intellectual disabilities, about 600,000 of whom are children, according to the Department of Mental Health.

Bijaya Rajbhandari, representative for Unicef Thailand, said that these children are among the most vulnerable and excluded groups in society and that greater efforts should be made to ensure that their rights to care and development are met.

"Support for children with disabilities should include opportunities to participate in sports and physical activities, which have been shown to have a positive impact on their physical and emotional development, as well as helping to improve their communication and social skills," Rajbhandari said.

Pichit, who has a low IQ and a short attention span, is one of the school's most successful athletes. He is on the football team and has taken part in Special Olympics national and international competitions.

"I've always liked football since I was young," he said. "I play in the front [as a striker]. It's the same position as Wayne Rooney."

In 2007, Pichit went to Beijing for the Special Olympics World Summer Games where Thailand beat Brunei 5-2. Pichit scored three of the goals. Pichit's football coach Chaianuchit Rakkanjananon said that his involvement in sports has helped him to develop physically and mentally. "In the past, Pichit used to play football alone and didn't go to class," Chaianuchit said. "Now he's much more motivated and organised. He even helps look after the younger children."

Back at the Rajamangala National Stadium, Pichit and his schoolmates chanted "Man U, Man U!". Sixteen-year-old Thanawat Ponoi held up a red and white club scarf with the boy next to him. Thanawat has also been a school athlete for two years and Pichit was his inspiration to take part in sports.

But in the second half, the strain was starting to show as Teeratep Winothai scored a goal for the Thai team.

"I'm not happy about the Thailand goal," Thanawat said. "I'm getting a headache waiting for Man Utd to score!"

The match finally came to an end with the Thai football stars beating Manchester United 1-0. The children from Suphanburi Panyanukul School were dejected by Man U's loss but still thrilled to have watched the game live.

"It was disappointing because I wanted Man U to score," Pichit said, as golden confetti exploded in the air. "But it was an exciting match and both teams were good. I want to keep on watching!"

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Writer: Andy Brown