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Soccer scores goal of peace in southern Philippines

Written by: Staff

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines, July 4 (Reuters) Mark Kahid punched his fists in the air and gave a victory roar as his team scored the winning goal in a friendly soccer match in the troubled southern Philippines.

A die-hard fan of Brazil's Ronaldo, Kahid and nearly 100 other children from eight schools in Zamboanga City on Mindanao island tasted the same excitement people are feeling about the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

''Someday, I want many people to see me on television playing at the World Cup or in any of the European premier leagues,'' said Kahid, 11, soaked in sweat after a 20-minute game of seven per side.

For nearly 40 years, the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines has been the front for insurgencies by communist guerrillas and Muslim separatist rebels -- conflicts that have killed more than 160,000 people and stunted Mindanao's growth.

A German non-governmental organisation has begun helping children in conflict areas reach not only their dreams but plant the seed of religious and ideological tolerance to promote peace.

''They may be fighting outside but here we bring them together to play together,'' said Trini Magbitang, a consultant for the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) group.

''We really have to start when they're still young. It would be difficult to talk peace when they're old and there's so much hatred in their hearts.'' Peter Keller, GTZ's Manila-based senior adviser, said he hoped the World Cup could spark greater interest in soccer in the Philippines, where it is seen as an exclusive game for the elite and pales in popularity against basketball, badminton and boxing.

''We're just using football as a vehicle to bring our message of peace,'' said Keller, an amateur soccer player, adding Germany had committed at least 3 million pesos (,000) for the 12-month sports for peace programme.

During the weekend soccer clinic, eight teams of boys and girls played more than a dozen matches between lectures onsportsmanship and understanding religious and cultural beliefs.

''Like a tree, peace-building does not grow overnight. You need to water and nurture it patiently,'' Magbitang said as she prepared snacks of fruit juice and cheese sandwiches.

''BALLS, NOT GUNS'' Linda Schaefer, a GTZ consultant, said the sports programme's focus was on children coming from different social, economic, cultural and religious backgrounds because ''we want to see them running around with balls, not guns''.

Magbitang said sports has been an effective tool in promoting friendship, telling of an incident when troops and Muslim rebels briefly stopped fighting after leaders of the opposing forces learned they were former soccer team mates in high school.

''The programme is very promising,'' she said. ''There was a lot of enthusiasm among the children, most of them coming very early to the stadium and staying under the heat of the sun all day.'' Dayanara Torres, a sixth grader, said she felt bad Portugal had knocked out England, her favourite team in the World Cup.

''I love this game. I come from a soccer family, so I played with a ball before I got my first doll,'' she said. ''I still love David Beckham but I want Germany to win this time.'' Ridzma Mohammad, an 11-year-old from one of the city's largest slum areas, was delighted to be in the tournament despite her team's string of losses.

''It's my first time,'' she said while resting after a 7-0 defeat. ''It's not the winning that's important but how we played the game. There'll be another chance, another time.'' REUTERSn CH BST0850

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