At almost 70 years old, his body ought to be creaky and the legs that shot a record number of goals for England and Manchester United should be weary.
But if they were, Sir Bobby Charlton wasn’t showing it in the National Football Center a few kilometers outside Phnom Penh on Thursday, as he banged another ball into the net.
Looking fit and sprightly and sporting shorts and a baseball cap, one of the greatest footballers of all time put a group of young Cambodians from the Indochina Starfish Foundation Football Coaching project and the under-13 national team through their paces.
Lesson number one is shooting on goal. “You’re smiling at me but you’re looking away,” he told one player.
“You have to learn to concentrate and listen to instructions if you want to be a footballer.”
The boy responded with a fine shot past the goalkeeper into the net and Charlton, who won a World Cup, European Cup and numerous English league championships during an incredible career, applauded warmly.
“It’s very important you don’t waste the journey me and Tony have made over here by not practicing what we’ve taught you,” he told the group of about 50 children. “One day, who knows…maybe Cambodia will play England in a World Cup final.”
The Tony he referred to was Tony Hawk, the skateboarding superstar who pretty much defined the sport in the 1980s and 1990s.
Both are in Cambodia as Laureus Academy members, an association of elite sportsmen and women, which includes the likes of tennis players Boris Becker and Monica Seles, athletics star Michael Johnson, golfer Jack Nicklaus and basketballer Michael Jordan.
Academy members act as ambassadors for the more than 50 Laureus Sport for Good Foundation projects worldwide, which is funded and supported mainly by the car manufacturer DaimlerChrysler.
The mission behind their projects is to address social challenges through sports related community development initiatives.
One of these projects, “Spirit of Soccer,” has been based in Battambang province since last year training coaches to teach young people about landmines through sporting activities.
According to Scotty Lee, the founder and director of Spirit of Soccer, more than 22,000 children have had lessons with Spirit of Soccer since it set up in Cambodia.
Charlton said he was proud to have been able to come to Cambodia and be associated with the project.
“I did not think the problem with landmines was as big as it is,” said Charlton, who along with Hawk visited the Spirit of Soccer project in Battambang’s Ratanak Mondol district, and a minefield being cleared by the NGO Mine Advisory Group near Pailin municipality Wednesday.
“This project is instant. We can stop children from being killed by warning them what to do,” Charlton said. “Athletes worship their bodies. To think of someone losing a limb without even having grown up is unbelievable.”
Hawk said he was overwhelmed “by how much these [landmines] restrict the basic needs of kids.”
Admitting that most of the children had little idea of who he was, Hawk said there was no reason why skateboarding could not become more popular in Cambodia. “I’d advise those here who want to skate to go create your own park out of the landscape you have,” he said.
Asked about the chances of Cambodia upping their footballing standard at international level, Charlton said: “It always seems a bit hopeless to begin with but look at the strides South Korea and Japan have made in the last few years.”
To prepare for the future, football officials in Cambodia have to focus on coaching, he said. “If [football officials] here want help or advice from the English [Football Association], we can do that. The English coaching system is the best in the world,” he said.
“The kids [at the Phnom Penh coaching session] were dubious at first. But they are keen to learn. A little coaching goes a long way with young players,” he said. “Why shouldn’t someone from here play for Manchester United?”
Charlton also said there was no reason that Manchester United, who are currently on a tour of Japan, South Korea and China, would not come to Cambodia and play here at some point in the future. Charlton is on Manchester United’s board of directors.
“If there was a way of doing it we would be open to the idea. I’d like to see it. I believe we would get a great response here.”