“MURAG dali tan-awon, lisod diay himoon (It looked easy, but it's hard to do)," a young girl mumbles as she tries to keep a soccer football within her kicking stride at the Tionko Football Fields in Matina, late afternoon Friday.

The girl was among the almost a dozen of pre-teens and tweener girls from the Tambayan Center for Children's Rights Inc. drop-in center for street girls. The girls came in board shorts, boxers, puruntong shorts, cargoes, capri and knickers, one even wearing a long denim skirt, and another one a dress.

They have just been given some balls and told to dribble the football with their feet along a twisting line of markers by their coach Stephen Ojo, a former international football player who now focuses on popularizing soccer among the young in Ireland in response to the social issues that beset them.

The girls in board shorts, boxers, puruntong, cargoes, capri, knickers and skirts didn't seem to mind that they were not dressed for football. They didn't mind that some were playing unshod, others in pairs of slippers and still others in ladies' sandals. Ojo, too, didn't seem to mind.

"I did not get any football shoes until I was 14," Ojo told a group of very young male soccer players at the Mintal Central Elementary School grounds Saturday morning during the Araw ng tugbok soccer tournament. "I played on my feet and it's good to play on your feet and get used to it."

Ojo is on a two-week visit to Tambayan to conduct football clinic among the street girls there and share his experiences of how soccer can focus attention on social issues like racism in Europe, and child abuse right here in our city.

His visit is sponsored by the Volunteer Service Organization (VSO) Global Exchange Program.

In an interview by Sun.Star Weekend, Ojo said he first had an audience with the girls where they were taught the theory about soccer.

"Showed them how a football looks like, how to kick it, that is kick the ball and not the legs, and I showed them a girl play soccer in a video 'Show Racism the Red Card'," he said.

His visit here is part of the "Show a Red Card against Child Abuse" street children soccer program of Tambayan.

Why a red card?

It's how soccer football is played. A player who commits a violent foul is issued a red card by the referee.

In our streets and congested inner settlement areas, girl-children are abused, punished, sexually molested by peers, family members, and neighbors. But no one is out there to issue a red card against the abuser.

This is what the campaign is all about.

"It's time for humanity to show a RED CARD against all forms of child abuse," the Tambayan website reads.

Tambayan describes the campaign as both a local and global advocacy drive intended to ventilate the issues of street children in the Philippines through the most popular sports in the world: soccer.

"The campaign also seeks to foster understanding and cultural exchanges between kids of the first world and the third world," the website entry on the campaign reads.

And yes, even if the Philippines is ga-ga over basketball and boxing, the most popular sport in the world is neither of the two. It's soccer. And only in soccer is a red card issued for one who commits a violent foul.

Follow the rules!

Stephen boomed amid the shrill voices of the young girls who have just been joined by the elder teens of Tambayan.

"If you don't follow the rules, I will not play with you tomorrow," he added.

Among the shrill-voiced girls, one hushed her companions, whispering, "Pagtarong na 'mo ba kay dili daw 'ta makadula ugma (You better behave now or else we will all not be able to play tomorrow)."

"Follow the rules, be respectful, keep fit, and make the ball your friend," Ojo enumerated the basic rules of football adding that a child need not be in school in order to play soccer.

"Soccer doesn't need education. The children who were taught soccer came to a level of understanding that they can achieve," he said. "I want that same message to the girls here. Never mind if they are street girls of schoolgirls."

Playing as one

Football, Ojo said, is a game that keeps people together shouting in one voice: Goal!

A hole half of the 90-minute game could go on with not a single goal made. Many times, a game score of one is enough to win as no other goal may be made throughout the rest of the game.

"It's the score that brings communities together," he said.

Admittedly, soccer is not popular here but that is because there are limited local initiatives to make it so.

But, especially in Davao, there is a pool of talents, teams, and passionate young coaches who can be tapped to bring soccer to the children, the underprivileged ones.

"They are street girls, somebody must give them joy and my only way to impart that is through football. Football is my friend, it's my baby," he said, adding that he saw potential among the girls not just in football but also as good mothers and future leaders.

First the game, then the team

Over at Tambayan, the program is designed to start small, as it has now started: to conduct soccer training and clinics for street kids.

From there, street children teams can be formed and friendship games can be organized, and finally the street children can be fielded into the mainstream soccer age group competitions. The initial target is to create football clubs in communities here where the hotheadedness of the young and the seemingly unflagging energies are directed toward one vision: a goal.

"Davao street kids today. Other cities tomorrow. Next day kids of the world," the website reads.

For Ojo, he looks forward to returning three years hence and introduces a Filipino soccer player into a recognized top team in Europe.

"One person to be known in soccer to represent the Philippines," he said.

In the meantime, it's all in the hands of the local coaches and their head coaches, to reach out and bring the game to the communities where potentials thrive but are left undiscovered by urban squalor, filth, and child abuse.

On March 10 at 4 p.m. at the Matina Town Square, Tambayan will be holding a "Pagdayeg", a recognition program for the street girls who participated int he week-long soccer clinic. Along with the Pagdayeg is an open invitation for support by understanding, advocating, volunteering, sponsoring, donating, and... playing soccer.