The journey began on courts made of mud, and continued onto well-paved courts built for them at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center.
Now Cambodia’s standing disabled volleyball team will show its skills at the World Cup in Puchov, Slovakia, then continue on to Germany for a 10-day tour. Cambodia’s 12-man squad will face Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Canada in Pool B play when the tourney begins this Sunday. Germany, Poland, US and Greece will compete in Pool A.
“We are confident in ourselves,” said Kheam Sokha on Monday, one day before he and his teammates leave for Europe. “Our abilities and techniques are much improved.”
Mao Sunly, who has been coaching the squad with the technical assistance of former German star player and now coach Manfred Kohl, points out that the national team has added six new players from rehabilitation centers in Kampot, Kandal and Kompong Speu provinces.
“They are talented, but have never played overseas,” Mao Sunly said. “So we are a little concerned.”
Mao Sunly coached the team back when a muddy court was all they had. Contributions from the governments of Germany, Australia and Cambodia, along with a donation from the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, have allowed the players to practice together for eight weeks while living together at Kien Khleang, where top-quality practice courts have been built.
Those same donors are paying for this trip, assisted by the German NGO Medico International. US folk singer Nanci Griffith made a $10,000 contribution.
Poland is the reigning world champion in the sport, while Germany is the defending champion in this event.
Kohl, who was a key figure for Germany on four Paralympics gold medal teams in his days as an athlete, says the Cambodians will probably be overmatched against Canada and face a tough battle against host Slovakia. “The Czech Republic is the team we have to beat,” he said.
“I’m very proud of this team, and Cambodia should be proud of this team,” Kohl said. “I’m very satisfied with their performance so far. But now we have to prove we can use all we learned in Slovakia. That is the important part.
“The Cambodian volleyball project is already known worldwide as an example of using sports in the rehabilitation process.”
The Cambodian program caught the world’s attention at the 2000 Paralympics Games in Sydney. The team won only one match, its finale against Australia, but received heavy media coverage as the only team made up entirely of land mine victims.
After the World Cup is over, the teams heads for an eight-city tour of Germany. One highlight is a demonstration game against the German team to mark the 10th anniversary of the birth of the International Campaign of Landmines.
“This campaign serves to remind us of the ongoing horrors wrought by land mines,” Dr Frank Ruckert, deputy head of mission at the German Embassy, said at a Monday press conference. “It also reminds us of the abilities of people with disabilities when they are helped by all of us.”
Another stop will be at a rehabilitation fair where manufacturers of prosthetics and artificial limbs are joined by educators, government officials, charities and anyone else involved in working with the disabled community. One of the companies represented will be Otto Boch, a long-time supplier of prosthetics and other supplies to Kien Khleang.
On the evening of Oct 2, the team will meet German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at a gala Paralympic Night. The annual event has become a meeting place for the elite of Germany’s sports, business, cultural and entertainment communities, according to Astrid Wolff, cultural attache with the German embassy.
The team is scheduled to return to Cambodia on Oct 4.