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Interview: Dermot O’Leary on hosting Soccer Aid 2020

The world’s biggest charity football match,  Soccer Aid for Unicef , returns live and exclusive to ITV, tonight from 6.30pm, with a host of famous faces. England Managers Wayne Rooney and Sam Allardyce take on Soccer Aid World XI managers Harry Redknapp and Bryan Robson with the aim to entertain the nation and raise much needed funds for leading children’s charity, Unicef. 

Are you excited to get up to Manchester and host this year’s Soccer Aid for Unicef?
I think it’s going to be different. It’s a very different challenge for us this year. Anyone that watches football is kind of used to watching football now since lockdown and with all the new restrictions. I think the players really strive on the experience of the crowd so it’s going to be really strange for them. But I’m sure we’ll put on a good show.

You are used to presenting without an audience having done so much radio but do you think the footballers and celebrities will miss the supporters? 
I think the pressure is still there for the players to perform well. Anyone who has been involved in or watched the match knows how seriously everyone takes it when they start playing. So I think they’ll want to perform their best and will not want to lose. All the players know there will be millions of people watching from home so they’ll want to do their very best. 

With coronavirus pandemic this year, would you say Soccer Aid for Unicef is more important than ever?  
The money raised at this year’s match goes towards Unicef support children around the world who have been impacted by the pandemic. I think it’s lovely to have these moments to raise awareness and much needed funds. Soccer Aid for Unicef has always had a wonderful family feel about it. Soccer Aid for Unicef has a lovely family feel to it. Hopefully that translates on the telly.  

This is one of the first live entertainment event on ITV since the pandemic, are you proud to be a part of that?
For me, a) I love being apart of Soccer Aid for Unicef and b) I love being a part of and hosting the main charity centrepiece that ITV makes every year. Every year I get a real buzz out of it. I do think, because it’s a charity event, it has a slightly different feel about it – a relaxed, warm feel. One of the wonderful things about working on The X Factor is that you’re working on a show that spans the generations and I think that Soccer Aid for Unicef is very similar to that. As you said, it’s one of the first live entertainment events ITV are producing and I’m proud to be a part of that.

You have continued to make your radio show, and have become a father in lockdown, how have you found the last few months?
I’ve been lucky in a way to have this moment, being able to spend this time with our child. I’ve tried to focus on the positives, I’ve continued to work on the radio, but I am acutely aware it’s been very tough on some people. It has definitely had its challenges. I’m not a particularly nervous person and I’m good at spending time on my own but I’m not going to lie, it has been unsettling. But for the most part, it’s been lovely for us to have this time with our little bubba.

Out of this year’s signings who do you think is the player to watch?
For me, I’d say Dermot Kennedy. He played for quiet a good team in Dublin so I’d be interested to see what he’s like. And I’m pleased Locksmith is back. For me, Locksmith is an absolute beast! He is such a nice guy. I follow him on Instagram too and he’s always bench-pressing cows and cars and stuff like that. A beast and so fit!

Is there a professional who you would have loved to see take part in the game?
I’m a big Arsenal fan so of the current squad, I’d have to say Aubameyang. But I’d love to see [Thierry] Henry put on a Soccer Aid for Unicef shirt and take to the pitch.

Wayne Rooney is making his managerial debut in this year’s game managing the England team…
Absolutely. Following in the great steps of Susanna Reid and Bradley Walsh! I’m sure he’ll be intimidated by such illustrious alumni!
If you could be the manager of Soccer Aid World XI, who would want to have on your team and what advice would you give the players?
What I love about Soccer Aid – and don’t get me wrong the footballers and celebrities are really good and I think they’ve got a lot better down the years – but what I tend to say to people who ask me what it’s like, it’s like a normal football match but after 10 minutes, the football pitch is like treacle. Everyone is just a little bit slower! So my advice would be a) be really fit and b) your first touch is really important. You’ve got to have just got to be good on the ball. For me, Martin Compston is the ultimate Soccer Aid player. He is such a good player and if I was Soccer Aid World XI manager, he’d be my Captain.
Would you love to play in the match one day?
I’d love to play, but if I’m honest with you, I’m not sure I’m good enough. I’m not a bad five-a-side player, I can run around a lot. But Rugby and American Football were always the games I was half decent at. I’m a huge Arsenal fan and I love going to watch the matches but when you watch an actual 11-a-side game in a stadium like Old Trafford, you realise it takes quite a lot of skill to kick it from one side of the pitch to the other. It’s actually quite a hard thing to do. Even when you see the penalties – it looks a lot longer to the goal than it looks on television.

You’ve recently become a Unicef UK Ambassador, how proud are you of that?
I’m lucky enough to have seen the work they have done over the years. It’s one of those charities that you think are far more catered for and far more looked after than they actually are. They do so much work on such little money. Their remit is massive and the fundraising part is so important. Unicef are doing everything they can, in so many challenging environments, to look after children and children’s education. You only need to see in this country over the last few months, how dangerous it is for children to not have an education and the negative impact of that.

Unicef have got an even more important role now and it was a no-brainer when they asked me to get more involved. I’m involved through Soccer Aid for Unicef anyway, I’ve been out to Jordan. I visited this enormous, well city almost as a refugee camp. When I say refugee camp, it’s normal people like you and I who happen to have a war on their doorstep and needed to flee. They didn’t have any choice in the matter and now they are in this incredible place called Zaatari – just in Jordan. There are schools there, shops. For all intents and purposes they’ve created this dwelling in the middle of the desert and Unicef is one of the main charities working there. I’m very humbled and honoured to be an Unicef UK Ambassador.
Why do you think it’s important that every child has the chance to play?  
We do talk so much about education and I do think that education in many ways is the most important thing. Having been around the world I’ve seen a few things and every child has the right to be a child. They have the right to enjoy their childhood rather than it be a struggle when you’re 7 or 8 years old. 

Soccer Aid for Unicef airs tonight from 6.30pm, live on ITV