Social Distancing Football

This article was originally published for UNICEF here.

Nha Nha, 16, started playing football nearly four years ago with ISF Cambodia (ISF)’s Under-18 team in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For her, it was a way to have fun and stay fit. However, COVID-19 soon made life increasingly difficult for her. With schools closing, she was forced to stay home.

“I’m so bored at home,” she says. “I can’t go anywhere — I don’t have many friends. I’d kill time at home playing with my sister but it’s not the same… When I’m with my friends I can spend hours and hours with them, and even if I don’t want to play, I was happy just to sit and watch them.”

Like millions of children across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic meant children like Nha Nha not only missed out on their education, but oftentimes also their right to play.

“Before COVID I was going to school to study and I was spending most of my time there,” she says.

“Once I finished my classes I wouldn’t go home straight away, I’d hang out with friends. Some weekends I’d take part in football tournaments. I felt so happy. Sometimes it was raining but we kept playing! It was so muddy and we’d kick the ball and fall into the mud. I miss that time so much!”

Under the restrictions, ISF came up with an innovative solution – Social Distancing Football.


To help protect players from the spread of COVID-19, ISF’s new way to play enforces principles of physical distancing. This includes wearing face masks and getting closer than two metres to another player is prohibited.

Players keep within their own playing zones, using a much more side to side style of play, rather than constantly moving back and forth. Players who break the rules are penalised by being sent off to “quarantine” area. Each player also has their temperature taken and must wash their hands before taking to the pitch.

Nha Nha lives with her older sister who is working in a garment factory. Sometimes she saves enough money to send money back to her parents in the countryside. For her, COVID was a worrying time.

“The factory suspended work from August until October,” she said. “They called us today to say they don’t have any more jobs for us to do. If I don’t work, I don’t have money to pay for rent, food or medicine if we’re sick.”

While Nha Nha did study at home, her sister worries that it’s not the same. “I’m worried she can’t study enough, or that she doesn’t understand as well as in class. When they study at home, it’s not easy.”

It’s a difficult time for many families but thanks to initiatives like Social Distancing Football from ISF, Nha Nha can still find ways to connect with friends and have fun.

Photos: © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for UNICEF