Published August 16th, 2005 - 06:57 GMT

Soccer’s reigning World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, the charismatic Brazilian renowned for his smile and his ability to score jaw-dropping goals, is to use his global celebrity to help the United Nations World Food Programme in its fight against child hunger, the agency announced on Sunday.

Ronaldinho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002 who last season inspired his team Barcelona to the Spanish title, will draw attention to the plight of the 300 million hungry children around the world in his capacity as a WFP Ambassador Against Hunger.

“I grew up with children from very poor families, and I’ve seen the effect hunger can have,” Ronaldinho said at a press conference at the Arts Hotel in the Olympic Port of Barcelona. “I was lucky - soccer rescued my family from poverty. Now I want to help WFP rescue other kids who aren’t so fortunate.”

Ronaldinho, a hero of Brazil’s “favelas”, or shanty towns, whose father died when he was just eight, grew up in an impoverished quarter of Porto Alegre, in the south of the country. The family’s fortunes were transformed when Ronaldinho’s older brother Roberto was signed by local soccer club Gremio.

One in four of the world’s children are underweight. Hunger and related diseases claim the life of a child every five seconds – over six million a year. And whenever there is a food crisis, such as the one in Niger, it is children who are most vulnerable.

“The situation in Niger, where food shortages were allowed to escalate as appeals for help went unheeded, is an example of how difficult it can be to draw attention to people’s suffering,” said John Powell, Deputy Executive Director of WFP's Fundraising and Communications Department, who officially appointed Ronaldinho as an Ambassador Against Hunger.

“We hope Ronaldinho, whose passion and flair have made him such a huge star and won him hearts around the globe, will help us raise awareness of child hunger – no more so than in his home continent of Latin America, where one child in six under the age of five suffers from chronic malnutrition and stunting.”

Last year WFP reached 16.6 million schoolchildren in 72 countries through its school feeding projects, which provide free meals to encourage poor children to attend class and help them concentrate on their studies. The agency will seek to reach 50 million by the end of 2007, as part of WFP’s commitment to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for the 21st century.

In his new capacity as an Ambassador Against Hunger, Ronaldinho will first visit a school feeding project at a school with its own amateur soccer team in a shanty town on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia, where WFP provides food aid to some 15,000 internally displaced people.

Plagued by long-standing conflicts between the government and illegal armed groups, Colombia has an estimated two to three million internally displaced people of a total population of 43 million, and some 80 percent of those displaced by violence lack sufficient access to food.

“I hope that as a kid from a poor family who has managed to fulfil his dream, I can inspire other children who are fighting to escape poverty and hunger,” said Ronaldinho. “But more than this, I hope that the fame I enjoy will mean that I can draw attention to their plight.”

Voted FIFA World Player of the Year by national soccer coaches and captains last December, Ronaldinho bewitches his opponents with audacious tricks and inspires both team mates and fans with his uplifting passion for “the beautiful game”; he is rarely without his trademark smile.

After beginning his career at Gremio, he spent three years with Paris Saint-Germain before moving to Barcelona in 2003. At the time the club was at one of the lowest points in its long history, not having won a title for four years, but within two seasons Ronaldinho’s contagious confidence had inspired the team to win Spain’s Primera Liga.

Ronaldinho is one of several international sports stars who are donating their time and celebrity status to help WFP defeat global hunger, including his Brazil soccer team mate Kaká, currently playing for AC Milan in Italy’s Serie A; marathon record-holder Paul Tergat of Kenya; cricket’s record-breaking wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka; and former Rugby World Cup-winning captains Nick Farr-Jones of Australia and New Zealand’s David Kirk.

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