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Kicking for Change: Empowering Disadvantaged children through Football

Before the FIFA Football World Cup in 2014, Neymar Jr., a 22-year-old Brazilian football player, was widely regarded as the player to watch. While his team did not make it to the finals, his performance throughout the tournament captivated football enthusiasts worldwide. Fast forward to 2017, Cristiano Ronaldo, considered one of the greatest footballers of all time, claimed his fifth Ballon d’Or award, the most prestigious accolade in the sport.

Though often compared by passionate fans and experts of the game, Neymar and Ronaldo share a striking similarity. Both players hail from impoverished and disadvantaged backgrounds, where affording basic necessities was a struggle. They were introduced to football accidentally, which ultimately became their lifeline. The game not only transformed their families’ economic conditions but also ensured a better life for their future generations.

Neymar and Ronaldo represent only a few among the many individuals who have been saved and supported by sports in general, and football, in particular. In fact, football is one of the most common sports played in refugee camps established by the United Nations.

According to a report, asylum-seekers and refugees are increasingly embracing football to help rebuild their lives after displacement. It enables them to stay active, make new friends and connections, and improve their skills and life prospects. The report showcases stories documented by an organization called Goal Click Refugees. It covers various locations, including Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Cameroon, Western Europe, the US, and Australia. These stories depict how football became a support system for refugees, helping them find jobs and start anew.

The common sentiment in all these stories was that the sport acted as a bridge; bringing together refugees and locals, and facilitating attitude changes, adaptation, and improvements in living conditions. Young football players in poverty-stricken areas share the same views.

This hype around football and the impact it can have on the lives of people is supported by several research and social experiments as well. In a study conducted to examine how football coaches develop life skills in their players, coaches were found to prioritize players’ personal development alongside their general coaching strategy.

Another research, which utilized data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, highlighted the influential role of coach mentors in the academic success of adolescents, with access to such mentorship potentially having long-term consequences for young individuals. A separate study that interviewed 40 young adults who participated in competitive sports during adolescence reinforced the notion that sports, including football, can serve as an educational context for acquiring valuable life skills.

Keeping in mind the transformative powers of the sport, FIFA, in collaboration with UNESCO, launched Football for Schools, an ambitious program that aims to empower approximately 700 million children worldwide through football. The program recognizes football’s role in contributing to the education and development of school-going children by fostering essential life skills, improving their health, promoting teamwork and collaboration, and instilling values such as discipline and perseverance.

Streetfootballworld is another organization that harnesses football’s potential to improve the living conditions and opportunities for children and young people. The United Nations also initiated an initiative called Football for the Goals, which provides a platform for the global football community to engage with and advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Despite the numerous advantages it offers, football in India has predominantly been associated with urban areas, finding its place in playgrounds and community parks of metro cities. In contrast, sports like cricket and kabaddi have overshadowed its popularity in rural regions. However, in recent years, local governments, social workers, and non-profit organizations have recognized its potential to bring about societal change. Football has shown effectiveness in various aspects, and uniquely in the Indian context, it can serve as a means to empower disadvantaged communities.

Take, for instance, teenage girls in Chachiyawas and other nearby villages in Rajasthan, who have been receiving training from a non-profit organization.

They hail from a region where child marriage is still prevalent, and education is a privilege. Over the past few years, these girls have actively participated in local and regional matches across states, even winning prize money. This has increased the social status of their families, motivating them to support their daughters’ education. Similar stories can be found in various regions of India, from Jharkhand to Andhra Pradesh, where football has played a crucial role in empowering girls across the country.

Amidst these examples of football’s positive impact, our Play program effortlessly becomes a part of this effort.

Girls team in Dharwad of North Karnataka, playing football during their league

Young girls from our rural site in Dharwad playing a competitive match during our annual regional league

The program focuses on training children from low-income families. Its primary goal is to complement their education by fostering essential life skills that enhance their employability and living conditions. Our program (PLAY) had modest beginnings but has now expanded its reach to benefit around 5840 children in India and Southeast Asia.

These children attend school training sessions and later engage in local and regional matches. For most of them, the program introduced them to the sport, opening doors to a new world that champions equality, encourages mixed-gender sports, and challenges stereotypes. It didn’t just affect the children, but parents and communities also transitioned from initially encountering an unfamiliar sport to understanding its advantages and providing wholehearted support.

In closing, the captivating stories of football’s transformative power serve as a poignant reminder that this sport is more than just a game—it is a force for empowerment and positive change. From the rise of players like Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo, who emerged from humble beginnings to become icons, to the heartening accounts of refugees finding solace and hope on the field, football’s impact extends far beyond the boundaries of the field. Looking ahead, let us continue to cherish and support the transformative power of football, recognizing it as a catalyst for positive change in communities worldwide. Through our collective efforts, we can nurture the spirit of football to inspire future generations, fostering a world where hope, resilience, and opportunity thrive on and off the pitch.

By Garima Kumar
Communications Associate

References : cioq=sports+and+life+skills&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5#d=gs_qabs&t=1690749644175&u= %23p%3DOUQm7zOXopMJ oq=sports+and+life+skills&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5#d=gs_qabs&t=1690750091935&u=%2 3p%3DILkhOteINUkJ g-girls-in-rural-india/80451/1