Despite hard odds against them, a team of Cambodians is training to compete in the Homeless World Cup – training a local NGO says helps them stay focused
It's early Saturday morning, and the sun is already scorching hot. Yet the dozen young men running after the ball on a small enclosed pitch at Boeung Keng Kang High School seem not to care.
Their focus is solely on improving their football skills and training for tomorrow's game. The heat, and all else, is inconsequential.
The youngsters are part of a football programme run by Australian NGO Happy Football Cambodia Australia (HFCA). Since its establishment in 2005, HFCA has been reaching out to disadvantaged youth in Cambodia through football.
Chao Vibol, the organisation's country manager, said football had a positive effect on poor and homeless children.
"This programme makes the children use their time in a good way, make new friends, improve their football skills and cut down bad behaviour, such as fighting, stealing and taking drugs," Chao Vibol said.
HFCA partners with three local organisations to organise regular training sessions with professional coaches for around 70 vulnerable children.
Recently, the weekend sessions have a gained a new sense of urgency, as the team prepares for the 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milan this September.
Inspiration through football
This year the organisation intends to send a group of players to the international event for the second time.
Last year, five players travelled to Melbourne to play in what organisers of the World Cup described as an event aimed at energising people who were homeless to change their own lives.
And although the team did not return with the trophy last year, HFCA Chairman Paraic Grogan said via email that the players had returned richer for the experience.
"The impact of taking part ... is massive not only on the players but also on their families, their community and the organisations," Grogan wrote.
According to Riverkids, one of HFCA's local partners organisations, participating in the World Cup helped with the teenagers' recovery by giving them something to aim for.
I don't think they’ll actually win the trophy, but they can win some experience.
"It helps them to strive for a better future - for themselves, their families and their friends," the organisation stated in report after last year's event.
This year, HFCA plans to send a team of six players to Milan to join 500 players from 48 countries in competing for the trophy.
According to coach Jimmy Campbell, the team is unlikely to win this year.
"But it depends on what you call winning," Campbell said.
"I don't think they'll actually win the trophy, but they can win some experience, they can make new friends, and have an experience that very few people from Cambodia are able to have.
"They will win something, but unfortunately I don't think it will be the World Cup."
Funding still pending
This year's team consists of Nam Sophal, Chan Rithy, Kung Theara, Men Monira, Chan Pheakdey and Kang Viet. Most of the lanky boys are in their late teens.
Chao Vibol explained that they all came from poor backgrounds and that most had received little formal education.
Despite being the oldest in the team, Kang Viet, 20, is only in grade 3. He said playing football made him happy, and he was looking forward to travelling to Milan for the World Cup.
Chan Pheakday, 16, an orphan who used to work at the Stung Meanchey dumpsite, said he, too, enjoyed playing the beautiful game.
"I have made many friends, it keeps me healthy, and it means I am spending the 'right' time," he said. Presumably, spending the "right time" means it keeps him out of trouble.
Team members described the opportunity to travel to Milan to take part in the World Cup as "surprising" and "unexpected".
"I will try, try, try 100 percent to become more skilled and get stronger before we go," Nam Sophal,19, said, though he said he, like his coaches, thought his team's chances of winning were slim.
Funding still needed
However, travel plans for the team are still pending.
According to Grogan, HFCA is still looking for sponsorship to cover the cost of flights, Italian visas, travel insurance and living allowances.
Though Campbell is not letting financial worries get in the way of training, he says more funds are urgently needed.
"We really need some help to get the kids sent to Milan," Campbell said.
Whether or not the organisation manages to raise the funds, the regular training sessions have already had a positive effect on the squad.
"I think they're working a lot harder than when we first started around six to seven months ago," Campbell said.
Back then they were very happy to do the easiest thing.... Now they are doing a lot more physical exercise and body conditioning."
The 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milan will take place September 6 to 13.