GOALS instead of guns. Balls in place of bullets.
A total of 220 kids from conflict areas in Mindanao are in Manila to take part in the 4th Philippine Marine Corps Football for Peace Festival.
Marine Lt. Col. Stephen Cabanlet conceptualized the program four years ago when he was deployed as a company commander in the 3rd Marine Battalion then stationed in Sulu, one of the least developed provinces in the country.
Cabanlet, who has a Master’s Degree in Physical Education, said he chose football as a way for his men to stay fit using the limited options available at a time when the Azkals were gaining popularity. Pretty soon, the marines playing on the field in front of their barracks started to attract children.
The kids, who would normally avoid armed troops on patrol, would borrow the ball and copy what the Marines did. This gave Cabanlet, who is credited with introducing innovations and improving gym facilities in his previous posting in the Sports and Physical Development Unit of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), an idea and he began to train the kids with Marines serving as coaches.
“Football for Peace is not just meant as a sporting event to hone the football skills of children from conflict areas but also a way for them to learn the values of sportsmanship, camaraderie, teamwork and discipline,” Cabanlet explained.
In an essay ‘The New Battlefield,' Cabanlet called for goals to replace guns where combatants use balls instead of bullets. His efforts in Minandao gained the attention of private organizations such as Meralco, who entered into a partnership with the PMC and One World Football donated 4,000 ‘indestructible’ footballs to the program.
Despite some reservations from traditionally-minded senior officers, the Marine Corps commandant supported the initiative and now all Marine battalions are instituting the program in their areas of operations.
The 20 provincial teams, composed of kids grouped led by a civilian and a Marine coach, will compete in a one-day tournament on Saturday at the PMC Headquarters Football Field in Fort Bonifacio where they will be joined by teams from Xavier, Ateneo and from the Marine officers’ families.
On Monday, more than 170 kids from Sultan Kudarat, Sulu Basilan, Zamboanga City and Tawi-Tawi arrived onboard a Philippine Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane at Villamor Airbase. For the first time, teams trained by the Philippine Army from Basilan and Misamis Oriental/ Cagayan de Oro will be joining the event.
As part of their preparations, the kids will undergo a football clinic with the Loyola Meralco Sparks on Wednesday at the University of Makati Track and Oval Field. Sparks coach Simon Mcmenemy and star players Phil and James Younghusband will help the young athletes in learning advanced techniques.
Rookie Nagtalon, principal advocate and co-founder of the Football for Peace movement, told reporters at the PMC headquarters that no kid in the program has taken up arms, a practice that is quite common in certain parts of Mindanao.
Nagtalon said their efforts pay off, particularly during times of rido or the regional clan/family feuds that can turn violent and even deadly.
“We have a rule that if you fight, we will remove your children from the team. And you know what? They end up on the same football field cheering for the same team and we are just amazed by it,” added Nagtalon.
He added that among the kids under the program are sons of leaders of both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Inspired by such results, the movement is looking to expand in the form of a football academy in Mindanao in the coming years.
Not all the activities are football-related, however, as the children, almost all first-time visitors to the capital, will be on an educational tour tof museums, parks and a shopping mall in Manila.
During one of the recent visits, one of the most popular stops was a toy store in SM Mall of Asia where the kids did not want to leave.
“We also want these kids to see the results of peace and prosperity. It gives them reasons to aspire for peace in their part of the country,” said Nagtalon.