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“The most important project” of football begins, not the World Cup | WGN 720 Radio

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) The goal is to get soccer balls to 700 million primary school children, most of them in the poorest or most remote corners of the world.

India alone needs 1 million swords, which will probably have to travel across the country on their way to reach children in about 10,000 schools.

“Can you imagine China?” – said Fatimata Sou Sidibe, Director of FIFA’s “Soccer for Schools” project.

Overshadowed by the build-up to the FIFA World Cup, football has launched what is probably its most ambitious global youth development program yet, with the monumental goal of delivering balls and training programs to nearly half of the world’s four- to 14-year-olds.

Football for schools was launched in 2019 but stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was revived this year and has an initial budget of $100 million from FIFA, about 1% of what Qatar reportedly spent on its stadiums alone for this year’s World Cup.

Still, “this is the most important project in the world of soccer,” said Steve Pila, who is leading the rollout of the Soccer for Schools program in South Africa, one of the pilot countries.

Football For Schools plans to ship 11 million Adidas footballs to tens of thousands of schools by air, sea and road. Schools will also have access to the training through a free mobile app. It’s a game-changer because it allows any teacher to train with dozens of hands-on activities designed for kids and available at the click of a finger.

Many schools lack not only swords. They also don’t have a dedicated football coach.

“Even a teacher in the most rural area can bring young boys and girls together, and you have something to do in the palm of your hand,” Pila said.

Pila said South Africa’s biggest problem was a lack of good coaches and this “fills that gap a little bit”.

Simple and hopefully effective.

Developmental programs are difficult to judge, especially when they target such young children. Any results are long term and sometimes intangible. School football is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on the world game until the next World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico has come and gone, or even the one after that. This is at least a 5-10 year project.

“No one invests in it because there is no immediate return on investment,” Sow Sidibe said.

But youth programs are priceless. All indications are that the world’s best players, the driving force behind the game and the centerpiece of the $200 billion World Cup in Qatar, are getting better because they have had regular exposure to under-10 football. Lionel Messi was playing for a club in Argentina at the age of 4, long before Barcelona came calling. Cristiano Ronaldo was in a youth team on the Portuguese island of Madeira at the age of 7.

FIFA estimates that there are more than half a billion young children who still do not have enough exposure to the world’s most popular game.

“We are now spreading the net,” said Mzimkhulu Fina, chairman of the football school at the South African Football Association.

The focus is on poor regions. Football For Schools is currently launched in 18 countries, most of them in Africa, South America, Central America and Oceania. The Caribbean is next. India is a big target for next year, where the project hopes to enable another 1.8 million Indian children to play soccer, Sow Sidibe said.

She hopes all 211 FIFA member nations will eventually adopt it.

Africa has a particularly rich potential, with more than 400 million children aged 10 and under growing up on a continent where football is second to none as a sport. It also has some of the coolest challenges; poverty, but also the remoteness of the countryside, where talent pools don’t go to pick up promising academy players.

The background of Sadio Mane, Bayern Munich’s Senegalese forward who is one of the best players in the world, spans Africa. Born in the village of Bambali in southern Senegal, football did not come to Man. He had to go find it. As a teenager, he left home for the capital, Dakar, hoping to make it. He did, but “so much was missed,” Pila said.

“We have good young players in Africa, but if they are not surrounded by everything they need to be among the best … it will be difficult,” said Yaya Toure, a former Ivory Coast midfielder who played for “Barcelona” and “Manchester City”.

“Football for schools” has another important component, said Pila, who was previously the head of one of South Africa’s top academies and is proud to have discovered Steven Pienaar, who went on to play for South Africa.

The app combines soccer with a life skills program developed in partnership with UNESCO, the United Nations’ education agency. And by bringing soccer programs to more schools, you keep more young players there, taking classes and getting an education.

Pila said it is more important than ever that young people understand that they will need more than just football skills in life because they may not make it as professional players. And even if they do, they won’t play forever.

“You know football doesn’t live long,” Pila said. “You play until you’re under 35. Unless you’re Cristiano Ronaldo.”

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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