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Football is the universal language of scores of millions of people around the world, including countless children and teenagers. Young people play in narrow, urban alleyways. They play in refugee camps. They play in abandoned swimming pools. In car parks, war zones, on street corners--wherever there are young people, it seems there is football.

© UNICEF/DHQ107/Susan Markisz -
Children play football at the launch of the FIFA-UNICEF alliance at United Nations Headquarters in New York.  

But the sport is more than just a game. It's a positive lifestyle. It's a way to promote a peaceful approach to conflict resolution. It's a tool for wooing a young body away from the lures of drugs, unsafe sex, or violence. It's a way to help ensure that young people grow up healthy, fit and full of self-esteem.

And, what's more, it's a manifestation of the right to play that the Convention on the Rights of the Child includes as one of the fundamental rights of all children.

The 2002 World Cup

Nothing demonstrates the reach and power of football better than the World Cup tournament. The World Federation of Football Associations, which is known by its French acronym, FIFA, organized the first World Cup in 1930. The FIFA World Cup is now the most watched sporting event in the world. In 1998, it drew more than twice as many viewers as did the Olympic Games: An average of 33 million viewers tuned in to the tournament and more than one billion watched the final match.

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  FIFA President Joseph Blatter, Brazilian football legend Pele, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and 14-year-old Alhaji Babah Sawaneh at the launch of the FIFA-UNICEF alliance.

The 2002 World Cup, which was jointly hosted by Japan and the Republic of Korea last June, was no less spectacular. And, for the first time, the tournament was devoted to a humanitarian cause: children.

Several well-known World Cup players served as spokesmen for UNICEF's 'Say Yes for Children' campaign. Children and teens wearing 'Say Yes for Children' t-shirts escorted World Cup players onto the field. The FIFA World Cup provided an unprecedented opportunity to focus global attention on the rights of children.

UNICEF in the field

UNICEF uses the game of football in various other ways, from helping children recover from trauma to encouraging their physical and emotional development. It also sees football as a valuable educational tool, a familiar setting in which to bring potentially life-saving information to hard-to-reach youth. In these and many other ways, football can help young people reclaim their childhood in situations where it has been forcibly put on hold.

In Nairobi, Kenya, young people spend an afternoon playing football and then get a lesson on safe sex and HIV from peer educators.

In Brazil, UNICEF programmes integrate sports into curricula for extended school days.

- © Thomas L. Kelly
  In Senegal, these young girls celebrate their victory.

In Afghan refugee camps, many children are playing football for the first time in their lives. Because the Taliban banned games, UNICEF workers are finding themselves in the unusual position of having to explain to children not just how to play the game but how to interact with other children, especially children of the opposite sex.

In Ethiopia, UNICEF supports a football league that conducts HIV/AIDS awareness activities during half-time at matches.

In countries with FIFA chapters, the local football associations are collaborating with UNICEF country offices to help in the areas of education, child protection and HIV/AIDS, issues which FIFA and UNICEF have agreed upon as priorities.

The UNICEF/FIFA partnership for the 2002 World Cup and beyond promises to be a great opportunity to use football to build a better world for children.

 

 
© UNICEF / Photo taken from the TV spot  The power of football  by Leonardo Ricagni
The issues Did you know...

During the span of a 90-minute match 100 children under age 15 will die of AIDS.

The players