For 11-year-olds at 15 state schools in the city of Curitiba, the school timetable has taken on a different look this month. Aside from the usual Portuguese, maths and geography classes, they have been taking part in a series of practical workshops on subjects that do not usually feature on the syllabus. 

A student at the CEI Raoul Wallenberg school in the suburb of Santa Felicidade, Natan has been able to overcome the many obstacles he has faced in life thanks to the work carried out by his teachers. Having suffered for many years as a result of his mother’s addiction to alcohol and drugs, he was introverted and withdrawn. Now in the care of his father, however, he is blossoming and has become one of the project’s leading lights.

“I’ve learned that we need to keep drugs out of our lives,” he said proudly. “If we don’t, then they can really damage our health.”

The FIFA “11 for Health”  programme is divided into eleven 90-minute sessions, each one split into two halves of 45 minutes – just like a football match – and promoting 11 messages targeting major global health problems, with every message reinforced by one of the world’s top footballers, among them Neymar, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Marta.

Former player Paulo Rink, who is now Curitiba’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ ambassador, underlined the importance of the programme to its participants: “We need to motivate them to do the right thing. There are exercises in which we write the word “drugs” on the ground and they dribble round the letters, literally giving them the slip. They’re easy things to say, but they’re very effective in the long term.”

“They learn to play football here and to look after their health, learning things like how to wash their hands properly, watch what they eat and to say no to drugs and smoking,” explained Dr Edilson Thiele, one of the country’s most respected doctors and both the Brazil 2014 Local Organising Committee’s (LOC) medical officer and the supervisor of FIFA’s “11 for Health”  programme in Curitiba. “These are all very important messages that 10 to 12-year-olds need to take on board.” 

As teachers and school principals have confirmed, the programme is changing the attitudes and behaviour of its participants, Natan among them.

“Parents are telling us that their children are arriving home from school with a real determination to make changes in their lives,” said the principal of CEI Raoul Wallenberg. “They’re getting everyone at home to do the same exercises they do here and to tackle the same issues they’re deal with at school.”

Brazil’s “11 for Health” programme is the result of a partnership between FIFA and the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) and the nation’s ministries of Sport, Education and Health. The Curitiba initiative, which also has the support of the city council and the Parana state government, was launched in 2009.

Worldwide, the programme is now up and running in 19 countries on the five continents and supporting some 50,000 youngsters. As far as Brazil is concerned, the aim is to roll it out in all 12 FIFA World Cup venues at the start of next year, continuing  the global expansion of the project.

“Our aim is to have 5,000 Brazilian children taking part in the programme before the start of the FIFA World Cup,” commented FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Jiri Dvorak, contemplating a legacy that extends far beyond the stadiums. “Beyond that, however, our objective is even more ambitious. We want to reach 45,000 Brazilian schools by 2019 and educate four million children a year.”