Tucked away in a neglected slum area near Boeung Kak Lake, a young aspiring football coach is harnessing the power of sport for social empowerment and to improve the lives of some of the nation’s poorest children through his charitable project Play To Progress.
Play To Progress is the brainchild of Tith Sovannara, a 23-year-old Cambodian who grew up with little education and few prospects in one of Phnom Penh’s slums.
As a boy from an impoverished background, Sovannara himself has been gifted opportunities he would never have usually enjoyed as a result of the beautiful game.
Today, through the support of several NGOs, he has managed to earn his Asia Football Confederation ‘C’ coaching certificate – the first step in the long road to becoming a professional football coach.
Seeing the positive impact football has had on his life, early last year Sovannara set off on his year-long mission to provide young children from marginalised communities across eight Cambodian provinces the chance to also experience the transformative power of football.
“I have worked with communities in eight provinces – including Kampong Spur, Kampot, Takeo, Svay Rieng, Kandal, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh."
“I’ve travelled to Kampong Spur province more often because it is not far from home and I can travel on my own motorbike."
“With the longer rides, I need to catch a bus and a motodop just to reach the area, and sometimes I even have to rent a tuk-tuk to carry my football equipment and donations of notebooks, pens and bags for the children, which are provided by friends and NGOs,” he says.
Sovannara usually travels alone, and most recently he went to the Banteay Meanchey province’s Sophie Primary School to coach more than 200 children.
“I use many means to spread educational issues through sport. For example, before I go to a community, I research to find out what issues they are facing. I then raise these issues with the children and discuss it with them,” he says.
Sovannara added that he currently funds the project through his own pocket, but hopes to establish his own NGO in the very near future to make his work more sustainable and expandable.
“I plan to access poor communities in twelve provinces as my target and then I will start fund raising to start my own NGO,” he says, adding that he hopes to have established the organisation within four months.
Sovannara traces his inspiration for founding Play To Progress to March 2012, when the then 17-year-old first met philanthropist Sean Landau, who would visit the local slum he lived coaching a handful of players with one ball and sticks for goals in the sandy remains of what used to be Boeung Kak Lake.
At around the same time, Sovannara received support from Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC) who helped him with literacy and numeracy, as well as allowing him to learn English.
“Since childhood I’ve loved football. My parents got divorced when I was 11-years-old; my mother was a tailor and my father was a policeman. They did not allow me to play sport because they said it was a waste of time and demanded that I instead work for money by collecting plastic,” he says.
Struggling to cope with a turbulent home life and disinterested in school, Sovannara says that it was EYC and football that turned his life around.
“I didn’t want to study and I almost dropped out of school in grade five. But then I encountered EYC and I played football through them. But their one condition was that I had to continue studying if I wanted to play football, so I decided to go back to school,” he says.
In 2018, Sovannara’s work led him to be nominated for a Beyond Sport Global Award, which celebrates, supports and provides funding for sporting initiatives around the globe that positively contribute to making the UN Global Goals for sustainable development a reality.
He was the only Cambodian candidate among 400 people from 33 countries at the 10th Beyond Sport Foundation awards ceremony in New York, the US in September last year.
To find out more about Play To Progress and support Sovannara’s charitable efforts, you can visit his website (www.playtoprogress.org) or his Facebook page (@playtoprogress).