In 2006, around the time of the glamour FIFA World Cup™ final between Italy and France in Berlin, FIFA went into partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to help put an end to the plight of child labour plaguing young people in faraway Pakistan. And, as is often the case, the game of football proved the turning point as children in the middle-eastern country began to move away from stitching an endless succession of footballs to energetically chasing them around a makeshift pitch.
Dreams of glory and freedom replaced darkened rooms and finger-splitting toil. No longer putting seams into footballs for others to enjoy, young people throughout north west Pakistan are being healed through the beautiful game and its many rewards. Former child labourers were invited to take part in organised football and, although the goalposts were merely piles of brick and the pitch's lines were hardly visible in the shifting sand, the difference made in the lives of the children is immeasurable.
The one-off game organised in 2006 in the Sialkot district in Punjab has grown into an annual cup competition and stands as the front line between the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and the horrors of child work in Pakistan, once rife with the odious and exploitative practice. As education begins to replace the soul-deadening drudgery of child labour, the youth tournament stands as a beacon in the global fight against child exploitation of all kinds.
Since 1997 the ILO, through IPEC, has worked with the Government of Pakistan, FIFA, the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), trade unions, manufacturers, UNICEF and various NGOs to combat child labour.
The most recent instalment of the sponsored tournament included over 20 teams from the region. And despite the searing temperatures, the kids seem to be enjoying their kicks of the ball. Football quickly became a crucial element of the education programs in the area aimed at combating the circumstances that lead to child labour. Popular among the youngsters, football has become the newest phase of the long-running Elimination of Child Labour in the Soccer Ball Industry in Sialkot project.
This year's tournament, known as the PFF Youth Cup, included over 20 teams, all in the U-13 age category and was won by Sargodha, from a nearby Punjabi district, who beat the team from Sialkot - the birthplace of the FIFA-ILO inaugural game. In addition to the pride of winning and a fine trophy, the side from Sargodha also picked up a cash prize of Rs 15,000.
Progress is being made in the region and FIFA is doing its part through the simplest of games. The young people, swapping pain and exploitation for the subtle lessons of a bouncing ball, all are winners.