This year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar begins on November 20. But the international tournament is not FIFA’s “most important project”.
The world football organization says its flagship project is called Football for Schools.
The plan is to provide soccer balls to schools around the world so that 700 million children can learn about the game. The organization wants to donate 11 million balls and provide a mobile phone program, or app, so that adults can teach children to play.
Fatimata Sow Sidibe leads the project for FIFA. The goal is to reach half of the world’s children between the ages of 4 and 14.
The program started in 2019 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It started again this year with a budget of $100 million.
This amount represents about one percent of what Qatar has spent to build stadiums.
Steve Pila leads the project in South Africa. He called it “the most important project in the world of football”. Football is another word for football.
Pila said the other part of the project – the coaching application for smart phones – is important. Many schools do not have anyone trained to coach football.
“Even a teacher in the most rural area is able to bring young boys and girls together, and in the palm of your hand you have something to do with them,” he said.
Pila said the biggest problem in football in South Africa is that there are not enough good coaches. The application “fills the difference just a little bit.”
The 2026 World Cup will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico and the Football for Schools program is unlikely to find the next big world star by then. Player development, especially in these young children, takes time.
Sow Sidibe said it is difficult to find investors in a project like this because it takes too long to see results.
However, research shows that the best players in the world all had regular football experience before they were 10 years old. Lionel Messi played for a team in Argentina from the age of four. Cristiano Ronaldo played regularly at the age of seven.
According to FIFA, more than 500 million children around the world do not play football very often.
Mzimkhulu Fina is part of the South African Football Association. He said, “We’re spreading the net now.”
Football for Schools focuses on children in poor countries. It is already working in 18 countries and plans to start in the Caribbean Sea area next. In 2023, he will travel to India where he hopes to reach 1.8 million children. Football officials want the program to expand to all 211 FIFA member countries.
Africa faces many challenges. But 400 million children under the age of 10 live there and football is the flagship sport.
Pila said many children interested in a football career have to leave their homes. He gave the example of Sadio Mane from Senegal who plays for Bayern Munich in Germany. He is one of the best players in the world, but he grew up in Bambali, in the south of Senegal. He had to go to Dakar when he was a teenager to be discovered.
Pila said many other youngsters do, but unlike Mane, “he misses so much”.
Yaya Touré from Ivory Coast went on to play for Barcelona in Spain and Manchester City in Britain. He said there are good players in Africa, “but if they’re not surrounded by everything they need to be among the best…it’s going to be difficult.”
Pila said there is another part of the Football for Schools programme. Inside the app is a life skills section. It tells young players that they will need more than just their football skills to have a good life. The program is designed by UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education. UNESCO is convinced that by putting more football programs in schools, young students will stay interested in attending classes for longer.
“You know, football is not vivacious,” Pila said. “You play there as long as you’re under 35. Unless you’re Cristiano Ronaldo.”
I am Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on an Associated Press report.
words in this story
tournament -not. a sports competition or series of competitions involving many players and teams and continuing over several days
stadium -not. a large building, usually without a roof, in which sports are played on a field surrounded by seats
app (app) -not. a computer program that performs a special task
difference -not. an area where something is missing
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