Two minutes in at a recent game of football on a dusty pitch at Phnom Penh’s Sisowath High School, the Happy Football team looked like they were in for a hammering. The opposing side in red from the high school were bigger, more skillful, more experienced and all but walked the ball into the net.
Nonetheless, it’s the team in yellow from the Happy Football Project who, all going well, could be the first Cambodian side to play in a world cup football tournament next year.
Coach Khun Sokhrin, 37, has only recently begun training this group of homeless, orphaned, or otherwise disadvantaged children and he’s not expecting immediate miracles from the Happy team.
For Khun Sokhrin and Happy Football Project co-Founder Paraic Grogan, it’s about small steps toward big dreams. A team from Happy Football is already slated to represent Cambodia in the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne in 2008, an international football tournament being organized in partnership with the European Football Federation where teams made up entirely of homeless people compete.
Coaches from Inter Milan, current Italian football Serie A champions, have also committed to coming to Cambodia to give workshops to the Happy Football players some time next year, Khun Sokhrin said.
The Happy Football Project is one of a growing number of projects aimed at building a network of footballing talent in Cambodia, while providing opportunities to disadvantaged children.
Most children coached by Happy Football come from the NGO Friends/Mith Samlanh, which works with street children.
Sok Pakoday, 13, the team’s number eight who comes from Prey Veng province, is more used to playing with balls made from bamboo with his friends at a pagoda. “I like football because it keeps me healthy,” he says.
Vong Sunday, 11, is one of the few girls on the team.
“It’s hard for girls to compete because the boys are stronger,” she said Sunday. “We are getting better, though,” she added.
Tola May, deputy secretary-general of the Football Federation of Cambodia, is helping oversee a similar but much bigger football project for disadvantaged children—Indochina Starfish Foundation Football Coaching.
“Fun, discipline, health are all benefits the kids can gain from football. The role of coaches is not just about training children in terms of football. They are teachers in other aspects of life also,” Tola May said.
An extension of the NGO Starfish’s educational projects in Cambodia, the football-coaching project came into being in April 2006.
Now 10 teams in Phnom Penh and four in Siem Reap province, totaling around 500 children primarily in the 10-to-13 age category, are benefiting from qualified coaches training them for around six hours a week, Tola May said. The FFC helps organize sponsorship for the project, while Starfish provides equipment and pays the 23 coaches’ salaries.
Teams come from a number of orphanages around the country, such as SOS Children’s Village in Phnom Penh and the Sunrise Orphanages in Kandal and Siem Reap provinces, and ISF Football Coaching is hoping to have its first countrywide tournament involving all its teams in the coming months.
“Outside of football, [Federation Internationale de Football Association] is trying to build up a more socially responsible role by using football as a tool to provide hope to children like these,” Tola May said.
For the Happy Football Project, a far smaller operation with only 22 children currently being trained, progress is slow but steady. There is a long way to go before they are in a position to get a team to Melbourne, with visa and passport issues probably the biggest hurdle they still have to overcome.
During the match at Sisowath High School, Sok Pakoday mis-kicked comically to hoots of derision from the opposition. But he dusted himself off and charged back into action. Slowly, the tide turned. The yellows got the reward their tenacity deserved as a cross from the left finished well to the net. They fought right to the end, but two late goals to the reds settled the issue 3-1.
After, the Happy Football team trooped off with heads held high. The have-nots had come close to a win, and the haves of Sisowath High School knew they’d been in a tough game.
Vong Sunday had the biggest smile of all. Khun Sokhrin, who volunteers to coach the children and has a regular job as a consultant to the UN Development Program, patted her on the head. “I see the fighting spirit already,” he said proudly.
There isn’t a strong structure for building up young football talent in Cambodia, in terms of league networks and feeder programs for larger clubs, Tola May said, but he believes this is starting to improve.
“The idea is to give an opportunity to children who have never really had the chance for sport or play,” he said. “The [FFC] feels that to groom new football talent they have to work from the center of the country out, establishing structures in the main cities and working outwards.”
While work is progressing, there is still a long way to go before the prospect of a talented young Cambodian being picked to play for a European club, Tola May said, though he believes that one day this could happen.
“Here we start small. This is still a humanitarian project. Getting talent to that level is the next step.”
Khun Sokhrin points to the example of Vietnam, where English Premiership club Arsenal FC agreed to help set up a football academy for talented youngsters last year.
“Why can’t the same happen here?” he asked.
Chan Moun, who scored against Sisowath High School, said he hopes to play professionally in the future.
“Maybe its possible if I train hard enough,” he said.