Spirit of game visits Cambodia
© FIFA.com

Wearing Wayne Rooney t-shirts, the boys and girls crowd round as their teacher explains what to do if they come across a mine or unexploded bomb. They have no idea who Wayne Rooney is and they only know Sir Bobby Charlton because he was the foreign man that came to visit them last year and threw balls in the air for them to head.

The children at the Roka Poeune school know all about the game of football, though, after a woman had arrived one day and started teaching them. She told them that the field they were told never to enter was now safe to play on. Then she gave them balls and taught them the rules and the moves. The woman is among the six Cambodians that Spirit of Soccer has recruited and helped train to provide football coaching clinics while educating children on the threats posed by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).

After the completion of a near-decade long project in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Scotty Lee set up Spirit of Soccer last year in the province of Battambang in northern Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four-to-six million mines and unexploded ordinances in Cambodia and, according to estimates, at present rate it would take 100 years to clear them all. Making matters worse, during the country's near-three-decade long war the mines were strategically placed for maximum human damage. More than 40,000 Cambodians are missing a body part with 40% of victims being young boys.

As much as turning land from killing to football fields, Scotty believes the world's favourite game can be used to bang home the message that mines are not safe. While 2006 statistics show that casualties from landmines halved to 450 from the previous 12 months, this year's figures have risen, noticeably along the Thai border where mines are sold for scrap metal.

Spirit of Soccer's six core instructors have now begun working with children from ten primary schools in the Kosh Krolor, Banan and Moung Russey districts of Battambang province. Already, 240 children each day are participating in the football/Mine Risk Education (MRE) sessions. The emphasis is on fun. After football sessions of an hour or more, the coaches explain about the dangers of the mines, often using pictures along with the posters, notebooks and comic books designed by Lee himself.

Spirit of Soccer's work both in Bosnia, where no child has been involved in mine accidents over the last two years, and Cambodia has come to the attention of both local and world media. And the organisation's association with football has not gone unnoticed by FIFA. It is among the 27 additional projects recently supported by the Football for Hope Movement as part of FIFA's commitment to social responsibility.

And from 23 to 26 September, the children in the Battambang province will receive yet more visitors as FIFA's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility Federico Addiechi along with Jurgen Griesbeck, Managing Director of Streetfootballworld - FIFA's strategic ally in the Football for Hope movement - will visit the project. The children will not have heard of them but as they are soon finding out, more visitors mean more football.