Cheered on by nearly 50,000 spectators, Prime Minister Hun Sen led his team to a 10-7 victory on Saturday in a highly anticipated friendly football match between the Thai ruling party and Cambodian government officials, military leaders and businessmen.
Featuring apsara dancers, pop music performances, hundreds of multicolored balloons and at least two brass bands in addition to the football itself, the event was a display of political theater perhaps unmatched in Cambodia since retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum regime.
The game was designed to showcase the new heights that Thai-Cambodian relations have reached under the brand-new premiership of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose Pheu Thai Party swept to victory in July. Judging by the sheer enthusiasm of the supporters who turned out for the event, it achieved its aim.
Under Thailand’s previous prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thai and Cambodian soldiers clashed multiple times along a strip of contested border near Preah Vihear temple. Mr Hun Sen also infuriated the Thai government by appointing fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra-a telecoms tycoon and Ms Yingluck’s older brother-as an economic adviser.
But that era, which Mr Hun Sen characterized on Saturday as a “nightmare,” is clearly over. In a short speech before the match at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, the prime minister praised Pheu Thai leaders and their supporters as “lovers of peace and friendship.”
“Today we can see an event showing deep changes in relations: the change from the battlefield to development, the change from the battlefield to trade and politics, the change from the sound of gunfire to the sound of music and a friendly football match, like today,” he said.
Indeed, both Cambodian and Thai fans cheered wildly each time the prime minister – wearing the number nine jersey, usually reserved for a team’s top striker – even touched the ball.
He ended up scoring three times for his red team, which comprised both Thai and Cambodian players. Former Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat helmed the blue team, but its star was undoubtedly National Assembly President Heng Samrin, who scored four goals in a row as a striker although he spent a large portion of the game offside.
“The teams are mixed together so no one wins and no one loses, but they can exchange ideas and trust each other,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who attended the match and said he found it “so emotional.”
The action on the pitch lapsed into studied slow motion whenever Mr Hun Sen or Mr Samrin took possession of the ball, with other players obviously reluctant to seriously tackle either of the CPP stalwarts.
But although the two leaders scored a disproportionate number of goals, National Military Police Commander General Sao Sokha, who played an energetic game as a mid-field winger, insisted that nobody took it easy on the prime minister or the national assembly president.
“It might have seemed like we were giving the ball to them to score goals, but that’s not it,” Gen Sokha said after the match. “We were just making opportunities for them. We respect fair play.”
Kith Meng, chairman of Royal Group, and Gen Sokha also scored two goals each for the reds. The team was rounded out by a fleet-footed Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema, Secretary of State for Civil Aviation Mao Havannal, and the prime minister’s youngest son, Hun Many, as well as Pheu Thai parliamentarians Jatuporn Prompan and Natthawut Saikua.
Aside from Mr Somchai and Mr Samrin, the blue team included RCAF Commander-in-Chief General Pol Saroeun, Russei Keo Governor Khlaing Huot, and Dy Vichea, the prime minister’s son-in-law. The sketch comedian Colonel Ou Bunnarath, best known by the stage name Krem, also starred as a striker for the blues, sporting his trademark bushy mustache.
Perhaps the most passionate spectators were the 10,000-strong contingent of Thai red-shirts who were bussed in for the occasion. Dressed in head-to-toe red outfits emblazoned with images of Mr Thaksin and Ms Yingluck-and occasionally Mr Hun Sen-they danced, swayed and chanted throughout the game, cheering alternately for Cambodia and Thailand and waving the flags of both countries. “I love Cambodia! I love Hun Sen!” one woman shrieked.
Another female red-shirt, clad in red leg warmers and shaking red maracas, attempted to dance onto the football pitch before being intercepted by a security guard. After the game was over the Cambodian audience quietly filed out of the stadium, but the red-shirts thronged the field to snap photos with their favorite Pheu Thai politicians.
“We are physically tired, but mentally strong,” Mr Hun Sen told reporters after the game.
His foray onto the football field appeared to be a success, at least in the eyes of his audience.
Soun Phea, 31, called it a “happy and historic” day and said he had enjoyed watching Cambodian leaders display their athletic prowess.”
“They are not professional players, but they can play a very long time and score goals, especially Samdech Heng Samrin, who made four goals and played the entire game until it finished,” he said.
“Relations are good now—red-shirt people love Hun Sen,” said 55-year-old Thai professor Shuchart Kamonviboonnum, who was wearing a t-shirt that depicted Ms Yingluck alongside a flying unicorn.
Thais who remained at home were also paying close attention to Saturday’s match, according to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian studies in Singapore.
“[The match] showed that suddenly Thai-Cambodian relations have improved so much, and that the domestic situation in Thailand is the determinant factor in this relationship,” he said in an e-mail.
“It also reiterated the fact that Cambodia has directly involved [itself] in Thai politics, and it has never hid the fact that it is a supporter of the red-shirts and the Yingluck government.”
“This is football diplomacy,” he added.