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World Cup behind bars

South Africa and Mexico played out a hard-fought 1-1 draw on a muddy, rain-soaked football pitch Thursday in front of cheering fans who pounded drums and banged cow bells.

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But it wasn’t the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. That contest begins on Friday in South Africa.

It was the opening clash between inmates participating in Thailand’s “World Cup 2010 Behind Bars” at Bangkok’s Klong Prem Central Prison.

“It’s wonderful — a fun day,” said Mitchell Blake, 43, from Sydney, who said he had been jailed for 17 years in Thailand after being caught with four kilos (about nine pounds) of heroin at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport.

“It’s not often that we get to enjoy things like this,” he said, cheering from the sidelines.

The event, which was also held in 2006 and 2002, features 18 seven-player teams, including traditional powerhouses like Germany, Argentina, France and Brazil.

The players are selected from the prison’s population of about 1,000 foreigners from 45 different nations, and can represent countries other than their own. Thai inmates make up the numbers when needed.

The tournament is designed so that when the prisoners leave, “they can be disciplined and good people”, said Preeda Nilsiri, 59, commander of Thonburi prison who helped organise the event. “I believe sports can unify people.”

Visitors were asked to check in their mobile phones and wallets at the prison gate and some guests were frisked upon entering.

As the opening match got underway, a handful of guards in protective riot gear stood at one end of the pitch, while other security officials wearing dark blue uniforms patrolled the courtyard, wielding batons.

Marinus Parlevliet, 56, an inmate from Holland, was filling in for the South African side.

“It’s a positive thing, for people to get out and play football,” he said.

But “in Holland, we never play in these conditions,” he said, when asked about the pitch, which had several large puddles and little green grass.

Cheering inmates and dignitaries assembled for the opening ceremony, where transvestite inmates decked out in fishnet stockings, silver hot pants, and feather headdresses performed choreographed dance numbers to thumping music.

Inmates carted in a gleaming replica of the World Cup, and there was even a marching band comprised of musicians from Thailand’s youth correctional system.

“It’s a change to our normal life,” said Greg Cannarozzi, a 28-year-old spectator from Paris who has served three years for a drugs offence and is due to be released next year.

“It’s just something different. Nothing changes here, so when we go outside, it’s something special,” he said.

The referees shrugged off the potential risks of overseeing matches involving convicted criminals.

“There are no differences between being a referee here and being one outside. It’s just important to be fair,” said Saman Rungiratanon, an academic at the Department of Corrections. “I’m not nervous. I feel normal.”

In any case there were no signs of trouble as inmates made the most of their precious time out of the cells.

“When I’m outside, I’m happy,” said Obi Titus, 34, from Nigeria, the scorer of Mexico’s lone goal, a neat finish at the far post from close range.

South Africa equalised in the second half, however. The crowd erupted, and the event’s announcer screamed “Bafana Bafana” — the nickname for the South African team — over the loudspeaker system.

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