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Football for Peace, a sports advocacy program started in Mindanao by a military officer to improve young children’s views toward government forces and Muslims and promote discipline in them, has returned to Palawan after a gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, the games were held on Green Island, Roxas town, on July 22-23, and at the Ramon V. Mitra, Jr. Sports Complex on July 25-26, with teams from Puerto Princesa City and the towns of Aborlan, Narra, Quezon, and Roxas participating.

Col. Stephen Cabanlet, Western Command (WESCOM) deputy chief of staff for operations, who started the program while still assigned in Mindanao, said that aside from developing discipline, football will also give kids, particularly those with talents and skills, a chance to have better lives once they are recognized by schools.

“Nakakalaro ng mga marines yung mga bata, then na-realize ko na bakit hindi ako mag-organize and teach these children yung discipline na makukuha ng sports, yung friendship at saka lalo na yung pagbabago ng kanilang mindset. Kasi doon sa Sulu, ang mindset nila sa aming mga sundalo ay kalaban, kasi armed kami, in full battle gear, so thinking nila, baka mamaya barilan, war, yun yung naging mindset so ang ano noon is shifting the mindset in order to win the peace,” Cabanlet said in an interview with Palawan News.

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Col. Stephen Cabanlet.

“I talked to my men and sabi ko, let’s conceptualize a program na magfi-fit sa community at doon sa mga sundalo because the objective is peace building and community engagement. Sabi ko sa kanila, itong mga batang ito pagnahawaan ng disiplina ng mga sundalo, madali natin silang mapapasunod sa mga batas ng gobyerno so walang criminality, mababawasan ang problema ng community in a way and mami-meet yung objective ng sundalo sa peace and order,” he added.

The program aims to teach kids aged 8–14 years old the basics of football, scout for potential players who could be scouted by schools and eventually make it to the national team in the future.

Cabanlet stated that more than sports discipline, they are also instilling in the minds of the children proper values at home and as members of the community.

“Wala pang football, bago kami mag-organize at magbigay ng bola, pinapapila muna namin, pinapapulot ng basura, tinatanong kung natapos na ba yung trabaho nila sa bahay. Minsan tinatanong namin yung magulang kung tumulong ba sila at kung hindi ay kino-correct namin yung mga bata, in a way na maging habit nila everyday kasi sa school o doon sa community,” he explained.

Members of a participating team in the football clinic listen intently as their coach gives them instructions.

Personal crusade
Cabanlet said that Football for Peace fits in with the programs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), but he started it as a personal campaign.

He chose football as the game was gaining popularity back in 2010 because of the Philippine Azkals team making waves in the international football scene.

This is outside of my work, tinatrabaho ko ito as a private individual na nag-a-advocate nitong programa. Noong 2010, kasabay sa pagbabago ng kampanya ng AFP, yung tinatawag na instead of winning the war, ay yung winning the peace – yung Internal Peace and Security (IPSP) Bayanihan which was later converted to Development Support and Security (DSSP) Kapayapaan, yun yung nagbibigay ng direksyon na hindi lang military ang solusyon para sa security at peace and order ng isang komunidad,” he said.

“At sumikat ang ating team Azkals noong 2010 kaya kasama rin natin noon dito ang mga magagaling na players gaya nila Younghusband brothers, si Chiffy Caligdong… sila ay kasama natin noong nagsimula ang Football for Peace,” he added.

He launched the cause in Sulu province in 2010, performing the program anytime his forces are not engaged in military operations, where they connect with the population via football.

After the program was successful for two years, he made it bigger by adding people from other parts of Mindanao and, eventually, from Palawan.

“Sinimulan namin noong 2012 na magdala ng mga bata lalo na yung galing sa conflict-affected areas. Kasi itong mga batang ito vulnerable sila sa recruitment ng terorismo, sa insurgency at sa mga masasamang loob. So namimili kami doon sa areas like Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Basilan, Zamboanga, Lanao, Maguindanao kung saan naka-station yung marines. So meron din galing Palawan during that time na pumupunta sa Manila at we hosted them,” he said.

It was at this point that some skilled players got noticed by coaches from different universities and were later given scholarships through varsity programs, which gave them the opportunity to continue and complete their education.

“Nali-link na rin ang mga bata para maipagpatuloy ang kanilang edukasyon kasi yung oportunidad nila pag nandoon sa lugar nila maliit lang, hindi sila nakikita. So ang Football for Peace ay nagbibigay ng opportunity sa mga batang nandoon sa conflict-affected areas o yung tinatawag natin na geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAS),” he said.

Coach Elmer Lacnet

Palawan leg
This year’s staging of the program in Palawan also got a much-needed boost with the presence of former Philippine team members who now serve as coaches in international arenas with the likes of Elmer Lacknet, Cocoy Severino, and Loy Fuentabella.

He also said that although this is the first major Football for Peace event in the province, units of the Philippine Marines have already conducted a smaller version of the program in the past, particularly in Barangay Abo-Abo in Sofronio Española and in Roxas, where marine battalions are based.

“Nagsimula kami noong (July) 22, and nagkataon na nandito yung pinakamagaling na football player noong 1980s – si coach Elmer Lacknet na based na ngayon in Australia at siya ngayon ang ambassador ng Football for Peace,” Cabanlet said.

“After ng clinic, mayroong palaro, we will organize them into groups para meron din silang interaction kasi galing sila sa iba’t-ibang lugar e. just to develop friendship hindi lang sa kanilang team kundi sa community ng football,” he added.

Locally, the Football for Peace team was supported in their needs by Viet Ville Restaurant in Barangay Sta. Lourdes.

Green Island humanitarian mission
The Mindanao Humanitarian Volunteers for Peace, Inc. (MHVPI) in partnership with the Marine Battalion Landing Team-3 (MBLT-3), brought the Football for Peace clinic to Green Island.

Aside from this, various organizations banded together to provide around 2,000 residents with free medical and dental missions and other basic services under the 20th All-In-One Mission. These organizations, among others, are the Rotary Club of Makati Ayala Triangle, MJB Foundation, Mabuhay Deseret, Philippine Dermatological Society, Elmer Lacknet Bedia Football Academy, Brady Pharma, Budjong Health Mission, and DOCPH Corp.

Mary Joy Bustamante, proprietor of MJB Cares Foundation and of the Rotary Club of Makati, said Roxas was picked for the sports program based on an evaluation completed by MBLT-3 stationed in the municipality.

“Nagde-depende kami kung ano yung isa-suggest ng AFP kasi we usually work with them kasi sila yung nasa ground so alam nila kung ano yung mga areas na kailangan talaga ng tulong. We connect the community and the AFP or the LGU, kumbaga we are doing this to achieve peace so lahat ng ginagawa namin is for peace building in the community,” Bustamante said.

“Naghahanap din kami doon sa mga naturuan kung pwede silang bigyan ng scholarship ng programa. May mga kasama tayon galing America, ng Australia, mga kaibigan natin sa national, mga philanthropist na handang tumulong sa mga batang nangangailangan para sa edukasyon,” Cabanlet also said.

Giving it forward
Meanwhile, Lacknet shared his insights on the program and passion for the game which he said changed his life.

He also said that through the game, kids will be engaged in something that will make them busy and forget the negativity surrounding the world.

“It’s a blessing that I learned this sport, so I give back to the sport that gave me life. Galing ako sa mahirap na pamumuhay kaya my advocacy is to help you, guide you, and teach you what I learned from this beautiful game. We do this para malaman ng mga bata na yung football is one way para makalimutan nila what happened to the world lalo na yung pandemic,” Lacnet said.

“One of my sons, Isaiah, is here to help me, and hopefully we can find some of these kids to be recipients of the Elmer Lacknet Football Academy scholarship in Australia,” he added.

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