As the 63rd FIFA Congress unfolded inside the Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre (SVICC) in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, FIFA Grassroots events and an ‘11 for Health’ workshop were the order of the day outside, with nearly 500 children of all ages taking part in the leisure and educational activities.
“The main goal of the ‘11 for Health’ programme is to reduce the incidence of illness and disease by educating children, who can then pass that knowledge on to their families and the people around them,” explained Professor Colin Fuller, a founder of the ‘11 for Health’ project, which was launched in 2009. “It’s what we call ‘the cascade principle’.”
The '11 for Health' programme improves children’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards diseases, and promotes 11 prevention messages that are founded on scientific facts and linked to specific actions. Participants learn in groups and receive their health education in sessions lasting 90 minutes.
Proving equally popular on the grounds in front of the SVICC was FIFA’s Grassroots Programme, which aims to introduce large numbers of youngsters to the sport of football.
“Children love playing football and they love dribbling with the ball,” said Rajesh Gunesh, a local instructor. “We’re here to teach them the basics of the game and to make sure they have fun doing so. We have 7-to-11-year olds here from 300 primary schools across the country, and we’ve also got festivals organised from April through to June.
"We also organise five- or seven-a-side matches, which gives us the chance to spot talented players and bring them into our national U-13, U-15 and U-17 sides. Hopefully we’ll be able to put some good teams together.”
Pilot schemes and projects
Delighted to see such enthusiasm among the children and instructors at the SVICC, Professor Fuller said it is essential that the ‘11 for Health’ programme gets the message across to children at an early age:
“We need to reach out to children as soon as we can because once they reach 11 or 12 it’s too late. Disease is a very important issue for under fives, and the younger they are the quicker they learn. Thanks to football they can do that without even realising, and by the time they become teenagers they’ve already acquired those healthy habits.”
Discussing the Grassroots Programme, Gunesh said: “We began with a pilot project in 2009 and we completed it in 2012. It was so successful, though, that we’ve now extended it as part of a second phase to 2015. Our goal now is to reach 15,000 to 20,000 children a year.”
Mauritius has also been a testing ground for ‘11 for Health’. In the process Professor Fuller has built up a strong bond with the country: “It is a special place for us. We see it as a model for other countries to follow. The partnership formed by FIFA, the member association and the authorities has been exemplary and is essential to the success of the programme.
"Educational standards are high in Mauritius and it’s been very important for us to show the benefits that football can have for health and education. We have worked closely with the ministries of Education, Health and Sport, and that’s been crucial.”
The smiles on the faces of the children in Port Louis on Friday and the enthusiasm of their coaches provided the clearest possible proof of the event’s success. Underlining that point was the day’s guest of honour, FIFA Ambassador for Fair-Play Simone Farina, who took part in the workshops and had this to say afterwards: "When I started playing football as a small boy in Rome, my parents, coaches and teachers taught me about Fair Play and it was very important for my football career.
"That’s why today I am proud of standing in front of these enthusiastic kids to teach them the basics of fair-play as FIFA Ambassador for Fair-Play. I tell them I know they play to win a match but when they lose, they should accept it with dignity. If you play with Fair Play you will always be a winner!"