A smile of recognition slowly spreads across the elderly man’s face. 

“A great goal by Cruyff against Reina,” he says, in a voice which strengthens with increasing conviction. “Great cross from the right. And then – with his instep.” 

“His instep,” the man repeats, gesturing with his fingers and now smiling broadly as he remembers the famous back-post volley scored by Johan Cruyff for Barcelona past the Atlético Madrid goalkeeper Miguel Reina in December 1973.

More than four decades on from that goal at the Camp Nou, the lifelong Barça fan is one of a group of patients with Alzheimer’s disease who are flicking through the pages of specially produced editions of the Spanish football magazine Líbero.

The patients are being helped by a project called Fútbol v Alzheimer organised by the Madrid-based Líbero and the Universidad Autònoma de Barcelona.

The idea for the project came from a 2014 study produced at the university’s Fundació Salut i Envelliment (Foundation Health and Ageing; FSiE). This research found that talking about football helped stimulate the memory, attention and mood of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive deterioration. 

Líbero got in touch with the study’s authors, Laura Coll and Sara Domènech, and together they decided to create editions of the magazine that can be used a tool to help during therapy sessions.

Four specially produced editions have as cover stars the legends László Kubala, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Pelé and Cruyff. Each issue includes short articles featuring key games and big personalities from across the decades, alongside specially designed exercises to help stimulate a patient’s memory. 

“There is one magazine for each age group of patients,” Líbero’s editor Diego Barcala told The Blizzard. “One magazine each with contents from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They don’t have long stories or anything, it’s not really a magazine to read or a ‘retro’ magazine. The contents have medical utility. We worked with the doctors on exercises they use for memory, where the patient must repeat a sequence. Instead of the usual objects, there are footballers. We adapt football content to Alzheimer’s exercises so they are useful for the patients.”

One page in the 1970s magazine shows the faces of six former players and patients are asked which of the men never played for Barcelona. During the therapy session, a different man spots the former Real Madrid midfielder Vicente Del Bosque in the bottom row of the photo.  “It’s this one – this is Del Bosque,” he says, evidently proud of working it out, and not being foxed by the Spain coach having been photoshopped into a blaugrana jersey. 

“Alzheimer’s erases memories,” says Coll, principal investigator at the FsiE, in an especially moving video showcasing the project, which was produced by Líbero and the Madrid-based advertising agency LOLA. “It does not erase the passion for football, nor the emotions, and that is what we want to recover using this therapy.”

“Things go out of our heads,” says a female patient in the video. “But if we see them, we remember.”

Líbero is an independent Spanish football magazine launched in June 2012. Barcala says the publication offers an alternative to the mainstream Spanish sports media’s fascination with Cristiano Ronaldo’s underpants and Lionel Messi’s tax affairs.

“One of our ways of being different is our social and political engagement,” Barcala said. “We always look to use football to help society, to help people, so that football actually does something. Not just business, money, entertainment. But to help people. Besides the Fútbol vs Alzheimer project, we have looked at issues like homophobia in football. All the proceeds from one issue were donated to refugees in Gaza via the UN. We always want football to form part of a social message. We did not want just to do a magazine story - but actually to contribute something.”

Barcala said putting together the special magazines meant thinking about how people consumed football decades back, long before 24/7 coverage on the internet or every game live on pay TV.

“The type of football fan which exists now, didn’t exist back then,” he says. “In those days you couldn’t see all the games. Today you can have a fan in Saudi Arabia who knows all about Leo Messi. But in those times, apart from the big stars like Pelé, fans in Spain just saw the team from their own city or big stars like Di Stéfano or Kubala. But they’re more connected to their own team which won La Liga in 1946 or remember a particular historic game. Because in the end the emotions of each person are closely connected to their own team.”

The project was made public last June and Barcala says the response since has been terrific. 

“It’s impressive, and surprising, how many people have been in touch,” he says. “I’ve had hundreds of emails, including from many patients’ centres which have used football as an impressive way of getting to people’s emotions. We also received emails from people who had suffered a lot, situations where their father did not recognise them. They had shared memories of football and could speak about football, even though they did not recognise their own son. That has happened to us a lot. We have received hundreds of emails.”

Barcala stressed that the project was not going to ‘cure’ or provide any long-lasting relief for patients who are suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive deterioration. 

“Football is not going to help them get their memory back,” Barcala says. “It’s not about that. What they can recover are their emotions. It’s almost more useful for the family members than for the patients. For example, a 30-year-old guy wrote to me saying his granddad could not remember his name, which was very difficult for him to take. But if he played the start of the Atlético Madrid club anthem, his granddad could still finish off the verses. He’s not able to remember a face, but can share a moment of emotion around the team. The project is like that too – when family members can recover some big moments, with their father, their granddad. Their families have this frustration, that they cannot interact, but by using football they cry, they laugh, they jump, they shout, they talk and have conversations, it’s marvellous.”

The Fútbol v Alzheimer project has so far not received any public funding or corporate sponsorship, and Líbero is not a business with the resources to fund a big print run or PR splash. 

However anyone anywhere in the world can go online [http://futbolvsalzheimer.revistaLibero.com] and make a small donation – and if they wish they can nominate the medical centre where they would like the special magazines sent.

“Many people have asked where they can buy these magazines,” Barcala said. “But this is not a business move by us. We do not want to sell them for €5. That is why we just ask for a  €2 donation for each magazine, as we believe that covers the printing and delivery costs, or €10 for four magazines so they go to a clinic.” 

The next step in the project will allow people to create their own edition of the magazine online, selecting relevant photos, dates and details, then download it as a PDF or similar file for use with their own relations, friends or neighbours.

“You can put into the website that you are from Valencia, my granddad is 70 years old, his decade is the 1960s,” Barcala said. “Then you can download onto a tablet or laptop a free personalised magazine.”

Líbero also have plans for using other types of archive material in new ways to produce useful therapeutic tools to help patients.

“We’re planning to make podcasts where you can listen to the commentary from games in the 1950s,” Barcala says. “We have other ideas too. Because football, in the end, has so much historical content that you can use. The commentators were always the same, their voices are very identifiable for the patients. Maybe for the Spain team at the World Cup or Madrid in the European Cup. All the games were not televised then, people listened on their local radio stations.”

Barcala says he and the University of Barcelona are keen to investigate different ways in which patients or clinics in other countries can be aided. There is no shortage of ideas – and there is a possibility that clubs or players might be interested in helping out.

“Colo-Colo, from Chile, wrote to us to say they wanted to get involved,” he says. “Juan Pablo Sorín, the ex-footballer, also got in touch to ask how he could participate.”

The Fútbol v Alzheimer project really does seem to be a pretty rare example of football really being used to help people just for that reason, not as a by-product of a project with a different ultimate aim or a roundabout way of trying to sell something to somebody.

Even if you don’t understand Spanish the video – at http://bit.ly/blzzrd19 – packs a lot more emotional punch than any 21st century multi-million dollar budget boot advert or slow-motion post-game action montage.

“It’s nice to remember the good things,” one elderly patient says at its close. “The bad things, I forget. But the good things are nice.”

In the UK, footballmemories.org.uk, set up by Alzheimer’s Scotland, is also using football to help Alzheimer’s sufferers.