You’ve seen it before every World Cup match, and indeed, just about every professional soccer game played anywhere over the past couple of decades. A starstruck child accompanies a player onto the field, then stands in front of him while the crowd sings the national anthem(s). What’s that about?
There’s a practical reason and there are symbolic reasons.
Soccer’s Ugly History
These days, fan violence at soccer games is rare (though not unheard of), with fan misbehavior mostly limited to vile chants (such as Mexican fans’ anti-gay slur, as reported by the Inquisitr), or the occasional drunken Englishman giving a Nazi salute, as reported by the Inquisitr.
A generation ago, things were quite a bit different. So rampant was soccer hooliganism in the 1980s that, in some places, such as England, to go to a game – or to play in one – was to risk your life. Before the game, during the game, and after the game, fans stabbed each other, threw projectiles at each other, pummeled each other with fists, and so on. Players weren’t immune to the violence.
For a player, walking out onto the field with a little kid in tow, says The 18, makes a fan less likely to throw things at you or otherwise try to kill or maim you.
No one can say exactly when the tradition of bringing out “player escorts,” as they’re now officially known, began. But by the early 2000s, the practice was here to stay. Oh, and it has been corrupted by corporate profit (more on that in a few paragraphs).
So Much Symbolism
Beyond their use as human shields, player escorts serve a multitude of symbolic purposes. Innocent children represent the purity of the game, if you will. Not swayed by bribes or corruption, they symbolize the true nature of athletic competition. They represent the future of the sport, as well as the futures of their countries and of the world. It’s almost like that Whitney Houston song, “The Greatest Love Of All,” in human form.
And of course, it’s ridiculously cute.
There’s Money Changing Hands, Too
McDonald’s was not above figuring out a way to make a buck off of the practice. For the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, of which McDonald’s was a sponsor, the burger chain selected all 1,408 of the kids that accompanied the players onto the field. Be a cynic about it all you want, but as The 18 writer Ivan Anich says, it was likely the greatest moment of those kids’ young lives.
“McDonalds did that because it wanted the world to be exposed to and like its brand, and if that meant making some dreams come true along the way, then so be it.”
World Cup aside, the practice goes on at the club level as well. Over in the English Premier League, some teams charge upwards of £250 (about $331) or even as much as £600 (about $797), for a kid to be an escort, according to The Guardian. For what it’s worth, nine EPL clubs don’t charge anything at all.
Here in the States, Major League Soccer (MLS) teams have their own procedures for selecting player escorts, generally offering the opportunity as a “fan experience package,” the prices of which will vary from team to team. Purely by way of example, the Chicago Fire MLS team only sells player escort opportunities as part of a group package, wherein you’ll have to purchase 100 tickets to have 11 escort spots given to kids. Prices will go up or down depending on the game.
So if you want your kid to be a human shield for a soccer player – or, more poetically, you want her to symbolize the beauty of sports, and of club and country – start making phone calls, and warm up your credit card.