United legends Bryan Robson and Ji-sung Park, plus players Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair, also took part in a Q&A session, which was broadcast live on Chinese social media platform, Sina Weibo.
Taking time out from the club’s pre-season tour of China, Robson, Park and the first-teamers spent time with six boys and girls from rural Gansu and Henan provinces, and encouraged them to talk about what matters in their lives.
The young people are benefiting from a life skills education programme supported by Unicef in collaboration with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST).
During the one hour interaction, the United players took part in the traditional Chinese game of shuttlecock kicking, before the teenagers shared stories of their experiences with the programme, for example overcoming problems at school and in their personal lives. The players gave advice on how to cope with setbacks and pressure, as well as how to be a good team player and lead a healthy lifestyle.
“The players and I were honoured to be here today and to be a part of this incredible partnership. I’ve witnessed first-hand the great work that Unicef does to protect vulnerable children, and am proud that the club is so supportive,” said former United and England captain Bryan Robson. “Adolescence is a crucial stage of life. It’s great to hear these young people share their stories and to give them advice on how they can cope with some of the challenges they might face.”
The players hope that their influence across the huge Manchester United fan base in China will help champion the rights of marginalised adolescents, and encourage young people to be the drivers of change.
Adolescence is often a challenging time for young people; an exciting but often uncertain transition from dependency to independence, sometimes leading to confusion, pressure and even depression.
“Adolescence is a valuable period of childhood in its own right, but it is also a critical period of transition and opportunity for improving life chances,” said Rana Flowers, UNICEF Representative to China. “By providing positive and supportive opportunities that enrich the developmental environment during adolescence, it is possible to overcome some of the consequences of early childhood harm and build resilience to mitigate future harm. With their passion, resilience and commitment, players from Manchester United can be positive role models for young people, inspiring them to strive for success.”
The programme opened another door in my life,” said Zhang Bin, a 16-year-old boy from Gansu who migrated to work in the provincial capital after dropping out of school. “I took part in the training programme two years ago and it gave me the first-ever chance to live in a city, learn computer skills, access the Internet and visit a museum.”
The United for Unicef partnership is now in its 17th year and has raised over £4m, helping Unicef to change the lives of millions of vulnerable children worldwide. It is the longest running partnership of its kind between a sporting organisation and a global children's organisation.