ROME (Reuters) - Like most of his compatriots, Oscar-winning Italian director Gabriele Salvatores loves soccer.
He can often be seen at the San Siro stadium watching his beloved team Inter Milan while the football-match-in-the-desert scene is one of the most celebrated parts of his 1989 breakthrough movie Marrakech Express.
But Salvatores, who won the 1991 best foreign film Academy Award with Mediterraneo -- the story of a motley group of Italian soldiers stranded on a Greek island at the end of World War II -- believes soccer can be much more than just a game.
He sets out to prove it in his latest work, Petites Historias Das Criancas, a moving documentary about children involved in the football-centered aid projects run by Inter Milan in the developing world.
"I love the idea of soccer as a team sport where everyone works so that the person in the best position can score," Salvatores told Reuters at the film's Rome presentation.
"In my opinion this is a great lesson, one we adults should keep in mind in our everyday lives.
"It seemed beautiful to tell the stories of children growing up in difficult situations of war and poverty who go to soccer schools that teach you to work in a team."
During more than a year of shooting, the director spoke to youngsters in seven of the 18 countries where Inter Campus, the club's development program, operates -- Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Iran, China, Brazil and Colombia.
He said the aim is not to rear future soccer talents, but to give disadvantaged children the chance to create better futures and become positive members of their communities as adults.
"All children dream of becoming a professional footballer, but Inter Campus makes it very clear that this is not likely. In fact, not a single footballer has come out of this program in over 10 years," the 58-year-old said.
"I don't want to hype it up too much, but I think there is a good idea behind it, which is: don't give us fish, teach us how to fish, give us the instruments we need to be independent.
"They work with people who were already engaged in the social sector, not to toss a coin of charity, but (to plant) a seed that can grow into something."
The film shows how soccer camps can be used to fight malnutrition by ensuring poor children regularly get a proper meal, like in a village near the Cameroon capital Yaounde.
In South America, football helps kids get an education and steer clear of street crime, while in Bosnia it is used to heal the wounds of civil war.
"In Sarajevo we saw Serb, Croat and Bosnian children play together," he said. "Ethnic differences no longer existed. All that counted was who was less or more good at football.
"In the favelas of Rio one of the main problems is that the children don't go to school. So the first thing Inter Campus said was that only children who go to school can participate in their project. It is a way to give them a chance."
For his first documentary, Salvatores learned a lot from breaking the show business rule about not working with children.
"Young people have an ability to talk about their lives without mediation, they have a sense of truth that adults no longer possess," he said.
"Here it was an exercise in telling the reality I saw, without controlling it. Usually in pictures you control the story, here you can't. It's like jazz, you have to go inside and improvise. So it's a good lesson."
Petites Historias Das Criancas is Salvatores's second work focusing on children's stories after his 2003 international success I'm Not Scared, an adaptation of Italian writer Niccolo Ammaniti's novel about a kidnapping in the 1970s.
"In a certain sense it's a biological thing. I am old enough to be a father. I don't have any children but I'm bringing up some cinematographic ones," he said.
"In I'm Not Scared he (the protagonist) was 10, I have a new film coming out at Christmas with a 14-year-old protagonist and I'm writing one for a 18-year-old protagonist. So without intending to, I'm bringing up my son."
Editing by Paul Casciato