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Inventing a new sport, "social distance football"

When COVID hit Cambodia, schools closed, leaving many children on the streets playing football unsafely. Award-winning sports NGO ISF tackled the problem by inventing a new sport and promoting it through social media, creating global impact with a budget under $300.

Background to pandemic response initiative

ISF Cambodia is an award-winning sports and education NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In April 2020, it signed up long-term volunteer Jaime Gill (of Box Clever Creative) on a pro bono basis to help it come up with creative ideas to respond to an urgent problem - the interruption to its football programme and the exposure of vulnerable Cambodian children to COVID. 


In March, the Cambodian Government had closed schools down to prevent the spread of the virus, but parents who were poor still had to work. ISF's football coaches saw unattended children continuing to play football without  masks or other COVID-19 precautions and wondered whether something could be done. Stopping the kids from playing across the whole country was, they knew, impossible, but could more precautions be taken? And could football's popularity be a vehicle for spreading messages about staying safe? 

The big idea

Jaime came up with the idea of creating a safer version of football - social distance football - based on table football where players physically can't touch each other. He believed this would make powerful social media content which could then be rolled out to reach the children at risk. Samedy Yin, ISF's head of football, then worked with his team on turning it into a real game with rules which would work in practice. After testing, it was ready to roll out on May 4th - first with coaches, and then with real children. The game was captured in a video filmed by ISF staff, and edited and promoted with a total budget of under $300.

The results


The very first game of Social Distance Football was captured in a fast-paced video formatted for Facebook and Instagram (hence the square shape and large subtitles, ideal for use on mobile screens). The video was publicised, along with "social distance football" rules, through social and traditional media. The video has since been viewed more than 150,000 times in Cambodia, with at least 50,000 views from children between 13 and 17, the group it was most trying to reach.


Unexpectedly, the video and concept became an international success. The video has been shared on social media globally, from America to Liechtenstein, and praise has come in from the Asian Football Confederation who applauded the “innovative” project. We were contacted by organisations in India and the United Kingdom, who adapted our social distance football concept and rules for their own use amongst vulnerable children. Christopher Lantigua, a football coach in New York, commented “this is the power of creativity, determination and most of all love, because out of chaos and despair something beautiful has risen because it was deeply necessary for the communities.”

Social distance football also generated a huge amount of media attention, including full page features in Cambodian national media like the Phnom Penh Post, international media such as the South China Morning Post and Latin American Herald Tribune and through likeminded organisations such as UNICEF's Asia region website, with its huge audience.

Most importantly, it was popular with the children ISF was trying to reach. As well as the 50,000 children who viewed the video, ISF coaches taught many more in communities to play more safely and to take precautions. The feedback was that social distance football helped them understand how to protect themselves from COVID. “I always love playing football, and I like this version of the game because it teaches teamwork. I’m glad to know I can play in a way which keeps me safer,” said Vattanak, 13 years old.

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