Mascot children are common across world football, but less is known among more casual fans regarding how the tradition started and who gets selected to participate.
When players walk out for pregame festivities ahead of a soccer match, they’re usually clutching the hands of adorable little children dressed head-to-toe in a matching kit. Generally known interchangeably as mascots or player escorts, these kids are part of a tradition long associated with the game, but the dynamic still leaves some of us with two questions in particular:
Who gets selected to accompany said players as they walk out of the tunnel, and how are World Cup mascot children chosen in the first place?
The practice began two decades ago ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted by Japan and South Korea. UNICEF and FIFA joined forces on a campaign called Say Yes For Children — according to a release at the time, the program sought “to promote and protect the right of all children to healthy recreation and quality primary education.”
In addressing the need to showcase the youngsters, UNICEF stated that “Children are being given a prime role at each match, accompanying each player onto the pitch in a symbolic action reminding football enthusiasts that they have a major role to play in building a world fit for children.”
It varies from league to league, but McDonald’s has been the official sponsor of the World Cup and European Championship player escort program since 2002. Numbers for the 2022 tournament have yet to be disclosed, but ABC News reported in 2014 the fast food chain sent 1,408 children from 70 nations to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
It’s rare, but some one-time player escorts have grown up to become soccer megastars in their own right.
Before he made history as Manchester United’s top goal scorer, a young Wayne Rooney was an Everton mascot during the Merseyside derby against Liverpool in 1996.
Life comes at you fast; Rooney would make his senior debut for the Toffees six years later at just 16 years of age.
While McDonald’s and UNICEF aim to promote children into these positions, parents can also take the easy road by coughing up enough to thrust their kids into the spotlight themselves.
A December 2014 story from The Guardian noted findings from a study that Premier League clubs were charging upwards of £600 ($724) to grant mascot perks. In addition to walking out with players, select packages include hospitality benefits at the designated game, a free junior kit, signed footballs, photos of the day, match tickets, and more.
Such a hefty fee naturally excludes households that don’t have hundreds lying around to treat their children to such an experience. Clubs that charge these fees have rightfully faced criticism for excluding those from underprivileged upbringings — and who might very well constitute part of the next wave of local footballing talent.
“I find it extraordinary that clubs which are getting so much money from TV rights then exclude kids from poorer backgrounds by imposing a fee,” football activist Clive Efford told The Guardian at the time. “It means that a certain class of kids will never be able to be a team’s mascot, and that doesn’t seem fair when their clubs are earning so much money. It seems ridiculous that some will be excluded because their parents can’t afford to put them on a waiting list.”
It’s a small moment at the time, but the mascot program reminds us that even when 90 minutes of intense football will soon be played, there’s always a special moment that will precede it.
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