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(photo credit: Allon Sinai)
Some of the world's biggest soccer stars graced the Camp Nou pitch in Barcelona on Tuesday night, lending their support for the "Match for Peace" between Spanish champions FC Barcelona and a special select team of Israeli and Palestinian players.
European player of the year Ronaldinho, Cameroonian Eto'o, as well as some of Israel's best players all displayed their soccer skills to help promote peace in a match which ended after press time. But despite the gifted players on hand, the real stars of the match sat in the stands.
A group of Israeli and Palestinian children, who have been meeting once a month for the last three years to play soccer, watched the game together, a living example of the true object of the match.
"Every month we meet up in different cities and split up into mixed teams of Israelis and Palestinians and play soccer, " explained 11-year-old Nadav Regev from Kiryat Gat, one of the children in the stands.
One of the Palestinian kids Regev meets at these games is 12-year-old Ahmed Hassan from Jericho, who said, "We meet the Israeli children and play soccer together, we also go out together and compete jointly with the Israelis in tournaments."
The Sports Unit of the Peres Center for Peace has designed a program of sporting activities, based on the needs of local Palestinian and Israeli communities. These projects along with infrastructe development are designed to provide a practical avenue through which Israeli and Palestinian children can engage each other.
Palestinian coach and former international Riad Swaki, 35, has been coaching in the project almost since its incep tion said: "Through the game the kids get to know each other, they play together, shake hands and get familiar with each other. Soccer brings down the barriers - these kids would have never met without soccer."
Following a number of soccer tournaments between Palestinian and Israeli children, the Peres Center established the pilot set of Twinned Soccer Schools, in Sderot and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya.
In the first year of activities (2002-03), 70 children trained in each school twice a week, and met monthly for joint sporting and social activities, playing in mixed Palestinian-Israeli teams.
Additional schools were added to the program in Sderot, Kiryat Shmona, Kiryat Ekron, Bnei Ayish, Netivot and Ofakim, and in the Arab communities of Isawiya, Tzur Baher, Jericho and the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
Despite tense moments, such as a Kassam rocket attack in Sderot during which the rockets landed near the soccer field only 20 minutes before the youngsters were due to arrive, the project has not had to cancel any activities.
In the big picture, sport may only be marginally effective at building bridges and making the world a better place, but it does fulfill one significant need: It makes people happier. Given a ball, idle children become one big, active, smiling bunch.
The "Match for Peace" may not bring ultimate harmony between Israelis and Palestinians, but even if it made a few more kids a little happier then it was worthwhile.
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