When a group of visiting Australian teachers threw a football to local teacher Soluy Louet outside Siem Reap Airport last November, they had little idea their goodbye present would lead her to found and coach a co-ed Australian Rules Football (AFL) team in Siem Reap. “When they threw the Australian ball to me I just stood there. I did not know how to catch or kick it back because it was different to a soccer ball. I had trouble picking the ball up at first and felt really embarrassed. But then later I began thinking that I would like to know how to play,” Soluy Louet said.
For readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of AFL, the game involves teams of 18 players who score points by kicking an oval-shaped ball between goalposts at both field ends.
Things get complicated when players who manage to avoid being tackled while bouncing and kicking the ball do score. Depending on which set of posts the ball passes between, the score is either six points or just one.
Luckily for Soluy Louet, Craig Munday, part of a group of Australians visiting Kralanh Primary School in Siem Reap where she teaches IT, also left her the parting gift of a Freemantle Dockers FC shirt along with a football, which gave her a focus to start her internet research into the sport. “I looked at Wikipedia to learn the history of Aussie Rules and learn more about the Freemantle Dockers, and when Mr Craig was on Facebook he would let me know when Freemantle Dockers games were on. I would then watch them on the Australia Network. All my friends asked why I was watching that channel, and Australians would laugh when I cheered for the Dockers.”
First attracted to the sport by the novelty of seeing players kick the weirdly shaped ball at high speeds, Soluy Louet explained her ongoing interest has been driven by two things: her affection for Australians and her love of violence. “I like the fighting, I like tackling people. I play AFL because I can kick people. But also it is about learning Australian culture. I love Australian people, they’re very lazy. No, I’m kidding. Overall, compared to Khmer people, they are easy people, very easy and love drinking,” she said.
After receiving an AFL instructional video from Munday, Soluy Louet began teaching the game to a group of her students at Kralanh Primary school in February.
“When you teach a class you have as many as 50 students in the room at a time. If you have kids doing things like sport it helps keep them interested and it broadens them, especially if they are learning something that is international with all the rules in English,” she explained.
“We did a demonstration and I gave the students feedback forms to fill out. I wanted to see if they liked it because I didn’t want to force them to play. But they loved it even though some said they don’t understand what is wrong with Australian people that they play football in this way!”
Soluy Louet’s caution was unwarranted, as even students she wasn’t supposed to be teaching began to show up in her class after hearing about the strange game she taught.
She said she’ll never forget one female student’s reasoning. “She told me: ‘I want to play because I don’t want to be a Khmer lady and stay at home all the time’. Then later she joked that maybe if they get good enough I will pay to take them to play in Australia.”
After the first demonstration, Soluy Louet began regularly taking her students outside during breaks to practice catching and kicking AFL balls, and more interest soon caught on. “No one knew what they were doing. At first I had students throwing the balls around trying to kick them on the ground, and it took ages for them to learn how to score in the game,” she said.
Soon, the group of footballers ballooned to 80 players between the ages of 12 and 18, with students from neighbouring primary and secondary schools flocking to join the team, and Soluy Louet started to face pressure from her recruits to come up with an appropriate name for the new club.
“I will probably choose the name of maybe a wild animal like a crocodile, but we still haven’t decided yet. I’ll have the players help me choose a fierce name.”
One of the questions most commonly asked of Soluy Louet by her fellow teachers is where she finds the time to coach her team, given she also works part-time for graphic design company Angkor Ads, and regularly travels across Cambodia to pursue her hobby of photography. It’s also a hobby that can turn slightly dangerous, as was the case last month when she found herself detained by Royal Cambodian Army soldiers outside Prasat Takorbey temple in Oddar Meanchey province, accused of being a Thai spy.
“They held me overnight inside the temple and released me the next morning after I called a friend who worked for Time magazine. He came and convinced them I was just interested in photography and was not spying. The next day after I was released a rocket fell on the place I was being held. I have a crazy hobby that sometimes brings me danger.”
Also unusual is Soluy Louet’s recent interest in triathlons, sparked when a group of visiting American tourists on an adventure holiday encouraged her to participate in her first race, held in Siem Reap in March 2010.
“I am very good at cycling and regularly come first or second in races, but the triathlon was different because I didn’t know how to swim. The tourists from Hawaii gave me a lesson the day before the race, but then in the triathlon we had to swim for 50 metres in a pool at the Royal Angkor Resort after a 40-kilometre bike ride. I was the second last person to finish, and it was embarrassing because everyone had to stand and wait for me.”
Despite the temporary embarrassment, Soluy Louet said that as the only Cambodian woman who competed, she was proud to have finished the race, and is open to the prospect of competing again in future.
For now though, her focus is firmly on training her AFL team to compete in an upcoming match against the Phnom Penh-based AFL club the Cambodian Cobras to decide which team best represents the sport in Cambodia.
“I want our team to be better than the Cobras. They do a terrible job,” she joked.
“We are ready to play against them at any time and place they choose, but they had better be ready.”