From the streets to school, kids are united by the beautiful game
The P5 pupils at St Catherine's Primary in Edinburgh are well prepared for the visit of FC Casa Alianza, a football team whose members are all "street children" from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
In the weeks building up to the visit, they have discussed questions like "What do you need to survive?" and "What might you want for life to be better?" One pupil says: "We're just wee children - what difference can we make?"
Class teacher Susan Wright leads a discussion about choices, about fair trade and about countering prejudice wherever you meet it. The pupils are not only well prepared, they're "massively buzzed up" by the visit, as Ms Wright puts it, and they feel "privileged" as the only school in the UK to host the team, which has just competed in the Street Child World Cup in South Africa.
What they're not prepared for is that their visitors are all-singing, all- dancing. Once the team arrives it treats the P5 class, and then the whole- school assembly, to a medley of Nicaraguan folk songs and dances.
The pupils laugh, clap and cheer, but they are also transfixed, quite in awe of these visitors. They've pinpointed Nicaragua on the globe; they know about how tough life can be for these kids; they've read, written and talked about their peers and watched videos - but here they are now in front of them, talking through a translator before going out for a kick- about.
The seven-a-side football team (nine, counting the two reserves) is made up of 13- to 16-year-olds. It came joint third in the World Cup, though the competitive element is really secondary. It's the experience, the sharing, the boost to self-esteem that really matters to a team which has never before left Managua.
The players not only know of Scotland as "the country where men wear skirts", they also know who their kit sponsors are - it's clearly emblazoned on their strips: Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities Celtic Supporters Club.
It is this connection between the charity Casa Alianza (meaning "Covenant House") and the supporters' club which has enabled the Scottish visit.
The Nicaraguans are full of praise for Edinburgh's architecture, and for their visit to the National Museum. What they're not too keen on is the weather and, true to form, the Scottish drizzle begins just in time for their kick-about with the St Catherine's pupils. But nothing is going to dampen the enthusiasm of any of the young people. This is a celebration that will be remembered by both sets of pupils.
"Today is the climax for our pupils," says Ms Wright.
"It's a direct experience and they'll keep it well in focus for the months to come. As one pupil put it, `They are here for real'."
For FC Casa Alianza, the trip to South Africa and Scotland is not just a major boost to self-esteem. It has, literally, given some of them an official identity for the first time.
"We had to track down birth certificates, tracing individual parents who are no longer on the scene, in order to get ID cards and passports," says Poonam Sattee, one of the charity's trustees.
"This means that some of these young people now have an official existence for the first time and that, of course, will help with getting them proper health care and furthering their education."
Casa Alianza works with some 10,000 street children every year in Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico City, offering protection, education and rehabilitation from the scourges of solvent abuse, drug addiction, gang warfare, official persecution and prostitution. The football players are among the lucky ones: they are on a residential programme.
"Solvents and drugs are abused to help keep hunger at bay and to cope with the reality of life on the streets," says Pedro Gunson, the Edinburgh co- ordinator of Casa Alianza. "It's important for St Catherine's pupils to understand that these kids' lives are not a stroll in the park - and it's equally important for the Nicaraguans to receive acknowledgment of their talents and of their humanity.
"In recent years some 5,000 street children have `been disappeared' by the authorities and by death squads in Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico City," Mr Gunson says. "As a (non-governmental organisation), we work with the authorities, but we also work with lawyers to pursue crimes committed against children by those very same authorities."
Casa Alianza received the Swedish Olof Palme Prize for its "courageous defence" of street children in 1996; the International Award for Children's Rights in 1999; and the Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian Award in 2000.
"Today is about respect," says St Catherine's headteacher, Paul Hunter. "As a school, we are focused on fair trade and on making our pupils aware of those less fortunate than themselves. This visit puts both Nicaragua and South Africa on the map for our pupils.
"It's all part of progressing the global dimension in the work and life of the school community and about making that real," he says.
What are definitely real are the smiles all round - especially the big grins from the girls and boys of FC Casa Alianza when they open their gift bags to reveal that, among the pens and pencils, each has a priceless football of their own.
"We will treasure these," they say.