To the people of Kankan, the second largest city in Guinea, Mikael Silvestre is more than just a FIFA World Cup™ runner-up. Known there as Papa Mikael, he is a benefactor, prophet, patron and a star rolled into one, revered by the crowds that gather in the streets of a town blighted by illiteracy, his name chanted with fervour.
Those were the scenes that greeted the France and Arsenal defender earlier this month when he paid a visit to his "Ecole de l'Espoir" (School of Hope), the first project to be completed by the NGO that bears the same name, which was founded in 2005 and uses education as its weapon in the fight against poverty.
Silvestre has overseen the project himself since the first stone was laid, and back in the summer of 2006 he was on hand to see the first class of 18 grateful, smiling youngsters to attend the school, one of three now run by the association.
"He really has put everything into it," explains Marie Jose Lallart, the director of the UNESCO programme Hope and Solidarity through Ballgames, a partner of the Ecoles de l'Espoir initiative. "He has not held back at all and his enthusiasm and commitment have been extraordinary." "Mikael has brought these children out of ignorance and given them a chance to play a role in society," adds one of the school's bursars.
Three years on, Silvestre has returned for a few days with the French actor and fellow patron Said Taghmaoui to assess the school's needs, check on the progress it has made, have a little fun with the students - the fortunate recipients of a professional apprenticeship - and help them with their immediate future.
"Helping children get off the streets and all the dangers it poses is the most beautiful victory of all," the former Manchester United man and passionate project supporter tells FIFA.com. "The best way to fight illiteracy and misery is through education and sport, which really help bring people together.
"Our reinsertion programme allows children to learn the basic rules of life and society, such as respect, tolerance, forming part of a group and seeing something through to the end. With time, this proven and carefully considered educational approach will help them to use their intelligence as they grow and to take their place in society. Our project will help them to develop and rediscover their self-esteem and lost pride. In short it will help them to learn to smile again."
Pythagoras said that a man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child, something Silvestre, a proud father of three young children, has proved through his unstinting support for the Ecoles de l'Espoir. "Being a father makes you see things differently. And there are so many things to do on this planet as well."
The Arsenal player proved the point in January 2008 by opening another UNESCO-backed school in Niamey, Niger, which gives 180 boys and girls from the disadvantaged suburb of Koira Tegui the chance to take literacy and training courses. In addition a third project has just been completed in Laos, south-east Asia.
Children are selected for the schools according to strict criteria and receive a complete three-year education comprising a core, non-formal basic education, professional training and sports instruction. They are also registered in the register of births, marriages and deaths.
In giving his moral and financial support to the project, Silvestre is allowing children in both Guinea and Niger the chance to recover their dignity, far away from a life spent pushing carts in the streets for a few sous to support their families.
As far as he is concerned, education is the only way to combat the social and economic ills afflicting the planet. "Education is the number one priority when it comes to tackling the problems of inequality and development in the poorest countries. It is the spearhead of the association's day-to-day activities."
Unconcerned about being labelled a utopian, Silvestre believes in an ideal world. And though neither he nor anyone can say with any certainty when that might come about, the footballing humanitarian will continue to lead the fight by taking his association to more countries around the world.