WASHINGTON — When Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and all soccer players walk onto the World Cup field right before a match, they do so hand-in-hand with children -- a steady tradition since the early 2000s.
Kids have been entering World Cup stadiums with the world's best soccer players for nearly 20 years. Since 2002, all World Cups have featured kids or "player escorts" as they're commonly called, generally between ages 6 and 10, alongside the top professional soccer players.
UNICEF and FIFA partnered for the 2002 World Cup to "promote and protect the right of all children to healthy recreation and quality primary education," according to the official UNICEF press release. The "Saying Yes For Children" campaign gave kids a prime role on the World Cup stage by accompanying each player onto the field.
Symbolically, the children on the field were "reminding football enthusiasts that they have a major role to play in building a world fit for children," the 2002 release stated.
McDonald's, a long-time corporate sponsor of the FIFA World Cup, has previously promoted the mascot program since 2002. The company has in the past hosted a sweepstakes to select about 1,400 children from around the world for the opportunity to walk hand-in-hand onto the pitch with players.
"McDonald's is committed to children's well-being and to providing unique experiences for our customers everywhere," said Johan Jervoe, Vice President of Marketing for McDonald's Germany in 2006. "The Player Escort Program has been one of McDonald's most successful sports programs since it began in 2002 at the FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan."
McDonald's isn't the sole sponsor behind the player escort program, however, and did not sponsor it for the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
For the upcoming FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup in New Zealand and Australia, CommBank will launch a Player Escort Program that will involve 1,500 children between ages of 6 and 10 to accompany players onto the pitch.
For non-World Cup soccer events, other corporate sponsors have taken on the responsibility of the player escort tradition. In 2019, Visa sponsored the program for the Total Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
While it's been a World Cup feature for decades, the tradition dates back even further with club teams. Wayne Rooney, who was a star for England's national team and Manchester United and now coaches DC United, participated in the tradition as a child. A photo published in the Liverpool Echo from 1996 revealed an 11-year-old Rooney as one of two "mascot children" accompanying players on the field.
Outside of the World Cup, becoming a child mascot can be as simple as paying the right price. A 2014 investigation by The Guardian found Premiere League clubs were charging as much as 450 pounds (around $550) for children to be mascots.
Other roles given to children during the World Cup include being a flag bearer.
Wanda, the Chinese conglomerate and partner of the FIFA World Cup, teamed up with the Qatar Foundation to create the Wanda FIFA Flag Bearers for the 2022 tournament. The opportunity to fly the FIFA flag during pre-match ceremonies was opened to kids and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16.
Some flag bearers were selected from Qatar schools who submitted their poems to the D’reesha Arabic Poetry Competition, an initiative launched by the Qatar Foundation with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
For the final game in the Lusail Stadium, Argentina and France will face off in a head-to-head match to determine the World Cup winner. Entering the pitch alongside them, hand-in-hand for the final time in Qatar will be their player escorts.