Last year, the number of men practising safe and getting tested increased dramatically in Sierra Leone, a country that had seen a 75% increase in all new HIV infections since 2002. The reason? A nationwide campaign across TV, radio and billboards. It was doctors telling men to put a condom on, it wasn’t politicians fighting the stigma of the virus, but three footballers.
Manchester United players in Hangzhou, China, are continuing on with the work of Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra on behalf of Unicef.
Dimitar Berbatov, who is a Unicef ambassador and supports five care homes in his native Bulgaria, has spoken of the positive responsibility that comes with being a famous footballer.
“Listen,” he said. “If David Beckham says something about HIV, then people will remember it. People do listen to the famous and maybe that is a little bit strange. When I was a boy I listened to my parents because what better example can you get than your parents? But many of these kids don’t have parents; they need someone else. But really, I don’t think you should need to talk to a famous person before you can address the problems you face. You need to understand the problems before they hit you. We come here for a reason, that is to train and play football, but there is also this, and I would say it is equally important and when I look back on my life it might be more important.”
Michael Carrick has also been talking to teenagers about the stigma of Aids as part of the Unicef project.
“It is weird,” he said. “You see kids who maybe haven’t got long to live, they meet you and they are happy for a while. It is hard for me to get my head round that. Why should they listen to me? I find that so strange.”
Last April, Carrick’s wife Lisa gave birth to their baby Louise, which has had a big impact on how he sees projects like this.
“I am being educated,” he added. “I have been to hospices and orphanages and if not for football, then I would never have done. It makes a massive difference now that I have a child of my own. I went to South Africa last year. It was my first tour and when I got home I thought that having a child changes a lot. I come here, I see these children and what they are going through and look at it in a completely different light. It puts into perspective how lucky I am, how lucky my little girl is. She has things, she has her health. But it feels surreal being here, trying to help but you just keep thinking…”