Football match will pit government, military officials against Pheu Thai team
Prime Minister Hun Sen will coach a football team composed of Cambodia’s fittest government and military officials who are set to play a friendly match next week against a visiting team of Thai parliamentarians, an official said Friday.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said Mr Hun Sen would be coaching the Cambodian team, but would not be playing himself. While details are still sketchy—it is not yet known which of the country’s top brass will make the team, or when the match, against members of the incumbent Pheu Thai Party, will be held—it will doubtless be a unique experience.
“This is the first time in history that the government from both sides is holding a game to challenge each other,” Mr Siphan said.
Friendly football matches involving Thai and Cambodian soldiers have long been a staple of border life. But those games use teams made up of soldiers from both countries rather than setting them against one another.
Never before have Cambodian and Thai government officials gone head-to-head on the football pitch, Mr Siphan said.
“It originated on the border as a way to build trust,” he added.
Thai Ambassador Sompong Sanguanbun said he believed the two countries had attempted to organize similar friendly matches in the past, but said warming relations since the July election of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra may have contributed to the scheduling of the event.
Armed clashes over disputed territory near Preah Vihear temple had contributed to several years of fraying relations, but ties have been on the mend following the election of Ms Yingluck.
Head of the Cambodia-friendly Pheu Thai party and sister of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra-a friend of Mr Hun Sen and one-time Cambodian government advisor-Ms Yingluck’s victory has been hailed as a chance for a return to normalcy.
Barely one month after taking office, Ms Yingluck is scheduled to visit Cambodia next week; while a long-delayed General Border Committee meeting appears on track to be held shortly after.
The Cambodia-Thai football match, meanwhile, represents a rare public opportunity to demonstrate how far both countries have come in recent weeks. And though the game is a friendly match, some said there may still be high stakes.
Political researcher Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, called the game a “test” and said despite the current feelings of bonhomie, there were potential negative geopolitical ramifications to such a face-off.
“I am sure that the new government in Thailand will instruct its officials to show a Thai spirit (of neighborliness) towards their Cambodian friends,” Mr Chachavalpongpun wrote in an email.
“But it is also dangerous that a football match like this could relight the fire of nationalism. It can go both ways. Thai nationalism has exploded so many times in the past and it could happen again.”