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Héctor Santibáñez is the winner of the 2014 FIFPro Merit Award. On behalf of all professional footballers worldwide, FIFPro donates $25,000 to the football school for children with Down syndrome established and run by the former Chilean player.

"This is a huge honour, receiving an award from all the unions, from FIFPro", said Santibáñez.

In 2009, Héctor Santibáñez initiated his project, a football school for children with Down syndrome. Twice a week he would offer these children, students from the "Escuela Diferencial Santa Elvira of Recoleta", a special football practice session.

During his career as a professional footballer, Santibáñez has met many children with Down syndrome. He had been trained how to handle children with Down syndrome and children in wheelchairs, besides which his wife is a specialist in educating students with learning difficulties.

At first, Santibáñez started with a year-and-a-half project at the Escuela Diferencial Santa Elvira of Recoleta. Because of its success, he continued this project, which has had up to 25 different students since its establishment, almost all between 15 and 23 years. Currently, Santibáñez is also acting as the school's physical education teacher.

"The school has had a positive impact on the children. They are self-reliant. They have acquired discipline through sport, and their parents are happy", Santibáñez explained.

Throughout the years, Santibáñez received support from various players. For example in 2012, when his team was able to participate in the "Down World Cup" in Brazil, thanks to help from former teammates Leonardo Monje (Universidad de Concepción), Luis Pedro Figueroa (O'Higgins, Sifup director), Esteban Valencia (former player) and Esteban Paredes (Colo Colo, played during 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups).

The Chilean players association Sifup also supported Santibáñez, as did the country's football federation.

Santibáñez: "It has been an enriching experience. We see ourselves as 'normal people', yet we complain about silly things in life. These kids teach you to really value your life. They have a pure soul."

Santibáñez was a professional footballer from 1994 until 2009. He mostly played in the Chilean second division for various clubs. The right midfielder/defender enjoyed his most prolific period as a player for Universidad de Chile (UD, the second biggest club in Chile). Currently the 42-year old Santibáñez is a professional coach, and one of the teachers for Sifup's social responsibility projects.


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