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08 June 2023

Ex-players tackle dementia in football-mad Spain


Eight senior citizens huddled around a table stare at a photo of a young Diego Maradona in a red and blue FC Barcelona jersey projected onto a screen at a Madrid retirement home.

Former Atletico Madrid defender Roberto Solozabal, a member of Spain's gold medal football squad at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and ex-Valladolid right back Javier Torres pace the room as they gently coax the group to identify the Argentine football legend.

"Great," says Torres, the sleeves of his grey sweater rolled up to his elbows, after one of the senior citizens correctly identifies Maradona, who played for the Barcelona side in the early 1980s.

Next he asks the group of five women and three men if they recall which foot the player used.

Prodding their memories like this is the aim of workshops held for residents suffering from, or at risk of developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, at the private Ballesol Olavide retirement home.

Staff say the activity keeps their minds engaged.

- Days gone by -

Over the course of 12 weekly, two-hour sessions, ex-players use football photos, programmes and memorabilia from days gone by to stimulate the residents' memories and help them to recall episodes from their lives.

While the focus on football is novel, the approach it reflects -- known as reminiscence therapy -- is common in clinical practice for dementia.

Studies have found the therapy improves both cognitive function and quality of life by boosting self-esteem and fighting loneliness, which is common in care homes.

- 'Strong emotions' -

The Spanish Federation of Associations of Former Football Players (FEAFV) launched the programme in 2016 after hearing about a similar initiative in Scotland.

It believed the method could be well-suited to football-mad Spain, which has four daily newspapers dedicated to the sport.

"Football stirs extremely strong emotions, it is something a person remembers," says federation president, 77-year-old former Athletic Club defender Juan Maria Zorriqueta.

As dementia progresses, memories of childhood and early adulthood tend to endure the longest.

Stirring up memories of players and matches from decades ago also helps bring back recollections from other aspects of people's lives at that time.

Talking about the 1982 World Cup final between Italy and West Germany at Real Madrid's iconic Santiago Bernabeu Stadium for instance prompted the Ballesol Olavide residents to remember and discuss where they were working at the time of the match.

- Football 'touches everyone' -

"Football is a tool to wake up memories. What things link you to your childhood, mark you?

"In Spain, or any European country, one of them is football," says Solozabal, 48, sitting in the conference room decorated with a giant photograph of a waterfall where he runs the workshop.

"It touches everyone, even if it is indirectly. You may not like football, but your partner and your children do," says the former player, who takes part on a voluntary basis like the vast majority of the other ex-footballers.

Workshop participants are encouraged to compile a scrapbook of the memories that they can recall.

"It helps me to not lose my mind. There are many people, who don't know where they are and I feel sorry for those people," says Ricardo Marina Liceras, 87, a former truck driver, who has lived at the Ballesol Olavide retirement home for less than a year.
The football therapy has also helped bring him closer to other residents, he said.

Another resident was prompted to talk at length about having played football as a child.

- 'Eager to remember' -

Staff and family members report an improvement in the mood of the participants.

The retirement home's psychologist, Beatriz Gema Rodriguez Blazquez, says "it helps" that football is a topic "that they like and are passionate about".

"I see them much more motivated and really eager to work and remember," she says.

The FEAFV federation organised 22 "reminiscence" workshops in 10 different cities across Spain in 2016 and 2017, all of them involving retired professional footballers.

And this year it plans to hold another 20 workshops, which are funded by both the FEAFV and the Spanish football players' union, AFE.