The six young Phnom Penh street footballers who will represent Cambodia at the Homeless World Cup in Brazil were scheduled today to begin their journey to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, where the tournament will kick off on Sunday.
Every member of the team, made up of 16- to 23-year-old men who had been receiving aid from one of several charities in the capital, expressed excitement about the pending trip. Some even mentioned football.
“I am excited to see Brazil,” said the team’s youngest player, 16-year-old Han Sithyrith, who was, not long ago, living on the streets near the capital’s Cambodia-Japanese Friendship Bridge, having been kicked out of his house by his impoverished family.
According to the team’s coach, Jimmy Campbell, the goal of the tournament is to provide the players like Sithyrith with a memorable experience that can broaden their horizons and give them self-confidence.
“If it goes anything like the last tournament, then our guys will probably be shy at first… at least until they get to know players from other teams,” said Mr Campbell, who took a different squad to the HWC in Milan, Italy, last year.
The draw for the four-a-side tournament has not been made up yet, but the Cambodian team will likely face stiff competition from football’s perennial powerhouses: Italy, Mexico, and, of course, Brazil. The HWC, which is funded in part by the Union of European Football Associations and Nike, brings together skilled but down-on-their-luck players from around the world.
Handicapping his team’s chances yesterday, Mr Campbell said, “We might have hoped for more size and power, but our team is very cohesive.”
That teamwork will ultimately be the barometer of success, according to Phy Sophon, director of Cambodia’s Riverkids Foundation, which provides housing and educational opportunities to at-risk youth from Phnom Penh’s slums, and through which several players were recruited. The other local charities sending players are the Center for Children’s Happiness and the Cambodian Children’s Fund.
“The tournament builds self-esteem and teaches them to help each other,” said Mr Sophon, adding that returning participants can be role models for the homeless children at his charity.