Creating a World First – Social Distance Football!

In a crisis it is the poor who are usually most vulnerable; COVID-19 is no exception. The Cambodian Government has closed schools down to prevent the spread of the virus, but parents who are poor still have to work. In rural Cambodia, extended family can help with childcare, but families in the most impoverished areas of the big cities (in other words, the kind of families we mostly work with) may be far from grandparents and other carers. Kids often end up looking after themselves and gathering together to play their beloved football, taking no precautions to protect themselves.

Our football coaches saw these games across Phnom Penh, from streets in the slums to public parks, and wondered whether something could be done about it. Stopping the kids from playing was, we knew, impossible, but maybe we could inspire a better way of playing, One which was safer. At the same time we could remind kids and Cambodians as a whole how to stay safe from COVID-19. So our coaches decided to invent the world’s very first game (and we have searched the Internet to check this!) of Social Distance Football.

The leader of our football programme, Samedy, came up with the core concept and then developed the rules with the other coaches. The internationally recognised principles of social distance were enforced, including the wearing of masks and a ban on getting closer than two metres to another person. Obviously that meant some big changes to the rules. Players  kept within their own playing zones, with a much more side to side style of play, rather than constantly moving back and forth. Players who broke the rules were sent off into quarantine!

"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."

On May 4th ISF football coaches gathered and decided to try out the game according to these rules. Although it took some getting used to, the teams soon realized that it actually encouraged more teamwork, more creative ways of communicating with each other and that success relied on excellent strategy and planning. 

Then we got in a few of our most football-loving students to try out Social Distance Football, to make sure it would work for them as well as it worked for us. After a period of adjustment, the kids learnt to love the game. “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.

You can see the whole thing in the video on our Facebook page which has now been viewed over 100,000 times in Cambodia, with at least 30,000 of those viewers being children between 13 and 17, the kind it was designed to reach. We’ll certainly be sending it out to all our football programme partners up and down the country. We hope it will teach people to play football more safely, in Cambodia and beyond, while also reminding them of the principles of Social Distance while we remain in this period of crisis. 

Our long time collaborators Coaches Across Continents have already been very supportive of how we are trying to “solve a problem and imagine new ways”, and we hope others find the idea of interest. We’d love to hear from any other organisations or individuals who give this a go. Feel free to adapt the below rules according to your own country’s guidelines. So, if your Government is forbidding more than 10 people gathering, you can stick to 5 a side. If your Government forbids all sport, you should follow that instruction too. However it goes, please write to us and we can share your story – email us at

*names of children under 18 are changed to protect their privacy

Social Distance Rules (feel free to adapt)

  1. All players get a COVID-19 symptoms-check before playing including a temperature check with a thermometer
  2. All players wash hands thoroughly before and after the game
  3. All players wear mask during the game but must alert the referee for a short break if they are too out of breath
  4. Players must stay further than 2 metres from each other
  5. The game can work with two teams of 5, 7, 9 or 11, depending on the size of the pitch.
  6. The players are arranged in rows, alternating by team, like in table football
  7. Before the game, the referee must mark a spot for each footballer which is their playing zone – if the player goes 2 metres beyond this spot, or closer than 2 metres to another player, they must be sent off into quarantine for 1 minute
  8. All players – including the goalkeeper  – can only play from the knee downward. An intentional foul will incur a penalty while an unintentional foul will mean the ball is returned to opposition’s goalkeeper
  9. Players cannot control or keep the ball for longer than 5 seconds
  10. Players cannot pass backwards to goalkeepers\

If you want to support our coaches to keep reaching kids in more creative ways during a time when they are especially vulnerable, your donation makes a bigger difference right now than ever before.