Pacific kids to feature in World Cup opening ceremony

A selection of 12-year-old football players and aspiring journalists from the Pacific Islands are among children from 211 countries that will be in attendance at tomorrow's Football World Cup opening ceremony in Moscow.

Children from American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu are in Russia this week as part of the sixth annual Football For Friendship programme, which aims to promote essential values embodied by football with the younger generation.

Abraham Iniga from Solomon Islands began football at an early age.

"I started playing football when I was five. My dad is a national player for our country and with his help and encouragement, I dream that one day, I can follow my father's footsteps," he said.

Football is about more than playing - it brings friendship, unity and peace. In football, there are no differences and titles, we are one," he said.

New Zealand journalist Shane Boyle from Football Music Culture is working with the lucky few in Moscow and said the future football and media stars are just the right age to take on big ideas and express themselves.

"The idea being that they can all go back into their home countries and understand the power of the sport they love anyway, football, to connect people all around the world," he said.

"It doesn't matter what race or creed or religion or anything like this - you come together as one through the game and influence some positive change.

"And as they get older the idea is that they can hopefully share these ideas amongst their peers."

President of Football Federation American Samoa, Senator Faiivae Iuli Alex Godinet, said: "Johnica Collins and Fa'afetai Kaleopa will remember this experience of going to Russia for the rest of their lives, and we are sure that when they tell their friends, it will have the potential to bring in more new faces from this age group into our grass-roots and youth programs."

The opportunity is being brought to the South Pacific region by Football For Friendship's global football partnerships with Lengo Football Academy and its local partners, Reagan Milstein Foundation.

Shane Boyle said each country had their own way of selecting who would represent them in Russia.

"Some of them had to submit articles, some of them had to do football skills in order to get selected," he said.

"They were put forward and now they're part of a 50-strong delegation of young players, young journalists and local representatives and guardians from each Pacific Island nation and we're all over here now and representing in strong numbers."

The young players, coaches and journalists took part in the Football 4 Friendship International World Championship on Tuesday in Moscow, where teams were made up of players from different countries.

"They were all in teams and because the adults have been taken out of the situation and their coaches are young as well - their coaches are aged between 14 and 16 - these young kids have really taken on leadership roles and they've been able to express themselves....these kids have grown every day," Boyle said.

"You've got player from Italy playing with kids from Vanuatu and that type of thing so it really is beautiful to see and the idea is that they go back to their home nations and spread this word and really get involved with the game and help grow that game locally."

The highlight of the Football 4 Friendship programme comes on Thursday evening local time, with participants attending the opening match of the FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia and taking part in the official opening ceremony at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Anita Hufanga from Tonga said her trip to Russia will be her first time out of the country.

"Growing up seeing my grandfather and father playing football drew me to football," she said.

"Being a girl doesn't stop me from doing anything. I believe girls should have the same opportunities to show their capabilities in sport and F4F will allow me to learn about other cultures and people."