The beautiful game and big dreams have always been intertwined. Now, a group of young Cambodians will experience both when they represent their country in a World Cup football tournament for the first time ever.
The Homeless World Cup began five years ago as a means by which disadvantaged people from all over the world could come together annually to compete on the playing field in an international tournament.
The eight Cambodian players and one reserve who will be competing in the 2008 world cup in Melbourne were selected as outstanding players in a football program set up by Happy Football Cambodia, which trains disadvantaged youths to play football.
During the first week of December, the Cambodian side will be among 50 teams from all over the world and will compete alongside the likes of Afghanistan, Mexico and the Ivory Coast. The tournament is street football style, with short matches between eight-a-side teams played over a six-day period.
Sixteen-year-old right midfielder Sam Yi said he is undaunted by the prospect of Cambodia taking on the world in Melbourne.
“I believe 100 percent we can win it,” Sam Yi said of the tournament. On the other hand, visiting Australia is a mystery for Sam Yi.
“I never read about it,” he said. “I only know what the word means.”
Striker Lek Chhoun Ly Wat, 16, is small in stature, but has speed to burn on the pitch.
“I think we can win; we have very good defenders,” he said.
The Cambodian youths, aged 16 to 18, all have backgrounds that are deprived to varying degrees.
Keeper Moung Bun Roeun, 17, has been in the care of the Center for Children’s Happiness for three years, as his parents could not afford to look after him.
Sam Yi, meanwhile, lives with his parents, who are currently threatened with eviction from a site in Phnom Penh.
Football is an outlet for Sam Yi and a means of defining his identity among his friends.
“Playing is healthy, and it’s good to try and get success for the team,” he said.
According to Chao Vibol, the assistant director of Happy Football Cambodia, which runs a football training program for about 90 disadvantaged youths twice a week, the Australian trip will be a valuable experience for the young players.
The organization’s aim is to use football to help give disadvantaged young people the skills and self-belief to climb their way out of poverty.
“Playing as part of a team helps keep them from drugs, alcohol and fighting,” Chao Vibol said.
“We try to give them general advice about life too, and their parents have in some cases told us how much their behavior has improved,” he said.
Football Federation of Cambodia coach In Sokha said the general standard of the team has greatly improved since he began training them in March.
“I strongly believe we can reach the semi-final stage,” he said of the competition in Melbourne.
“It is the first time our team has had chance to play abroad. [Melbourne] will be a great meeting of homeless kids from around the world.”
Chao Vibol said that one of the main objectives of the Happy Football program is that some of its participants would one day go on to become coaches themselves.
“Cambodia needs more kids playing football and will need more coaches in the future to do that,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)