Subject: AP: Newly independent ET gains membership in Asian soccer body


Newly independent East Timor gains membership in Asian soccer body

Thu Aug 15, 6:00 AM ET

DILI, East Timor - Just three months after achieving independence, soccer-mad East Timor — the world's newest nation — joined the sport's governing body in Asia.

"East Timor was accepted as an associate member of the Asian Football Confederation at its 20th Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia," said a statement received from the sport's body on Thursday.

It said AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam pledged the organization's full support in helping East Timor develop soccer.

"We are happy to gain a new member and are confident that East Timor will prove to be an active member of the AFC," Hammam said.

More than 300 years of Portuguese colonization left the tiny Southeast Asian nation with a Latin-style flair for soccer. After Indonesia invaded in 1975, the East Timorese continued to play, competing in tournaments throughout the archipelago.

During the 24 years of Indonesian rule, soccer became an expression of resistance. Student-organized matches in East Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia were often a front for clandestine meetings where underground pro-independence groups exchanged information about the operations of the Indonesian military.

When East Timor voted for independence in 1999, many young players were forced to flee the country to escape a violent backlash by Indonesian troops. They returned to find their country destroyed and the population dispersed.

Dili's main stadium was converted into a giant refugee camp as U.N. troops landed to restore peace.

East Timor's soccer organization recently announced ambitious plans to start a national league in 2003 and compete in the Tiger Cup tournament for South East Asian nations in 2004.

Sixty-five percent of East Timor's population of 800,000 is under 25 and many are avid about sports. A number of East Timor athletes won medals in a recent regional competition in Darwin, Australia.

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