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Messages from Malawi: why daily school meals are empowering children to play the beautiful game

From South America to Europe, Asia to Africa, football fever is well and truly gripping the globe as the 2014 World Cup continues in Brazil, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Malawi.

I'm here working for Mary's Meals, which runs a school-feeding programme for more than 691,000 children every day. The charity's vision is a simple one: provide children with a daily meal in school so that they can live and learn. But I'm also eager to learn the benefits this has outside the classroom, so I head to a local football field to meet a group of eager football fans.

"We're rooting for Brazil", a group of young boys tell me as they kick a ball around a dusty pitch in the commercial capital Blantyre.

"Who's your favourite player?" I ask.

"Neymar," they reply.

The 22-year-old Brazilian golden boy certainly didn't disappoint as he scored twice in Brazil's World Cup opener.

As I research a bit about Neymar's background I discover he grew up playing street football, and wonder if that's part of his appeal to these young Malawian boys. Most of them don't have shoes on, they're playing on a gravel pitch, using rocks as goal posts, and playing with a ball not much larger than a tennis ball, but their love for the beautiful game is evident.

Out of the corner of my eye I spot two boys about 14-years-old with a proper sized football. One of the lads shows-off his "around the world" trick. His friend laughs, grabs the ball and does the "scissors" trick, inspired by the legendary Ronaldinho. Their display was like something out of Run DMC's 'It's Like That' music video, but with a ball.

I'm eager to get involved so I wander over and ask to show them the only trick I know, something I like to call "the ball over the head" trick. They seem impressed with my ball skills and ask for me to show them more. I laugh and politely decline knowing I've already shown off the full extent of my footballing prowess.

I start chatting to the boys about their lives, and what inspires them to play football. I discover most of them have come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, and often lack food.

"How do you have the energy to play?" I ask.

"We receive porridge at school," they tell me.

As I ask more questions I discover that the boys are among the more than 692,000 children in Malawi receiving Mary's Meals. They go to the local Misesa Primary School in Blantyre, where nearly 2,000 children are served a nutritious meal each day.

"So how does the porridge help you play football?" I inquire.

Fourteen-year-old Mussafata pipes up: "The porridge helps me with my football skills," he says.

The first thing I notice is how tall he is for his age and I immediately wonder if it's the porridge, which is fortified with vitamins, that's helping him to grow so tall.

He explains, "It improves my vision and gives me the energy to communicate with my teammates on the pitch."

Another player interjects and says that without the food he receives at school he'd be hungry and wouldn't be able to play.

As the great Nelson Mandela once said: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair".

As I continue watching the boys play, these words echo around my mind and I realise how much football means to these young lads, who really have very little. It makes them stronger as individuals and unites them as youngsters, and as they told me themselves, without the porridge they wouldn't have the energy to play.

Before I leave I ask them one final, but all-important question: "Is anyone supporting England?"

Most of them laugh or look down at their feet, apart from one brave boy named Patrick who says that he is and he wants to be like Wayne Rooney.

After Rooney and the rest of the England squad's World Cup performances I wonder if Patrick still feels that way!

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