Who Are Those World Cup Kids?

Plus, why do the players exchange jerseys after every game?

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The World Cup will come to a close on Sunday as Italy plays France for the title. In preparation for the big day, the Explainer answers a couple of questions that readers have asked again and again since the tournament began.

What’s with the jersey exchange at the end of the game? It’s just a sign of good sportsmanship. Most players opt to trade jerseys with their opponents after an international contest—whether it’s part of a tournament like the World Cup or just a friendly exhibition game. According to an excellent 2003 article by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff, the practice dates back to the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. The most famous swap took place in 1970 between the top players for England and Brazil—Bobby Moore and Pelé.

When a match ends, each player seeks out an opponent for the swap. In general, they trade jerseys with the guy standing closest to them, but in some cases they’ll go over to an old friend or try to position themselves near a notable rival. Quite a few players on the Italian team will have their sights on the jersey of France’s top player, Zinedine Zidane. (Goff writes about an equipment manager for the New York Cosmos who used to bring more than two dozen Pelé jerseys to each match so that all his opponents could get one.)

Players on the U.S. team get new jerseys before every international game. They can trade them on the field or give them to friends and relatives. A veteran player might collect hundreds of jerseys over the course of his career. Some shirts get tossed in the closet; others get mounted and framed.

Who are those kids who accompany the players onto the field at the start of the game? They’re the “player escorts,” or children from youth soccer leagues who get selected for the honor. In general, a big corporate sponsor picks which kids get the job. McDonald’s ran the program for this year’s World Cup, just as it did in 2002.

The application process works a little bit differently in each participating country. (The company picked 1,182 children from Germany and 226 more from countries around the world.) In England, newspapers ran contests asking kids between the ages of 6 and 10 to send in a photo, the answer to a soccer trivia question, and a 50-word description of their passion for the game. (One winner wrote: “I love football because it keeps me fit and disciplined. … I love to score goals—79 up to this season. One day I hope to be another Ronaldo.”) In Australia, the kids were allowed only 20 words, and in Singapore they had to send in pictures of their craziest soccer outfits. Some of the German kids were able to play their way into the program in a youth tournament.

A child who gets selected as a player escort wins a free trip to Germany, along with one parent or guardian. They get a hotel room and a guided tour of the city that’s hosting the game, plus an official player-escort uniform. Not every player escort gets assigned to his home country’s team—the father of one English winner complained bitterly in the press when his kid got assigned to escort the Germans in a game against Costa Rica. “It’s a good lesson in life for Louis,” he said. “It’s a shame he has had to learn it this way.”

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