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Cairde Khmer brings Irish sport to Kingdom

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Khmer club members celebrating a successful tournament in Kuala Lumpur in 2019. Photo supplied

Cairde Khmer brings Irish sport to Kingdom

Played on a wider pitch with a goal resembling the type used in rugby but with a net attached like in football, Gaelic football is a sport mainly played in Ireland that also combines other features of football and rugby. For example, players can use either their feet or their hands to get the ball into the net or over the crossbar to score.

Gaelic football is not to be confused with hurling, which is another Irish sport but more resembling hockey played with a shorter stick and a broader oval blade – but on a field similar to that of Gaelic football.

Both sports were brought to Cambodia by the Cairde Khmer GAA Club back in October of 2017 by an Irish expat named Padraig Campbell. The club now has members from around the globe.

Ronan Sheehan, the current chairman of the club, tells The Post “We have a strong mix of nationalities. We have Khmer, Irish, English, Polish, Belizean, Colombian, American, Canadian, Australian, French, Sri Lankan, and many more.”

“People have a misconception that because the games are Irish, so is the club. In fact there are more Khmer members than any other nationality,” Sheehan says.

Cairde – which means “friends” in the traditional but little-used Gaelic language that is native to Ireland – as a club and the game of Gaelic football in particular have both sparked the interest of many Cambodian men and women.

Club member Cheth Kanika, 28, tells The Post that she never even knew Gaelic football existed until she heard about the GAA club by word of mouth from a friend.

“I didn’t really know what to expect – not having heard of Gaelic football before – but I found the sport quickly grew on me. Back in school I always liked sports, but I never worked out if I was more into football or basketball. That is what makes Gaelic so great – you don’t have to pick!

“You need to combine the skills required for both, with the bonus of rugby thrown in. During the first practice, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to pick up the game’s basics,” she says.

Sheehan – who has lived in Cambodia for over six years and also plays in the popular expat band The Goldilocks Zone – says that having fun is the only requirement for membership in the club.

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Club members during a regular blood donation drive with Voice Cambodia. Photo supplied

According to Sheehan, people who’d like to participate shouldn’t be worried about their level of skill or athleticism. The club holds training sessions for all ability levels .

“How much time they want to commit is up to them. The main message is the harder you play the more opportunities you will have. We only charge $3 per training session to those who can afford it, but we have a free-to-play policy for Khmer players and we cover their travel and accommodations when we play out of town or abroad,” Sheehan says.

The club has competed abroad at tournaments in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. The men’s team won the South Asia and All-Asia Championships in 2019.

Sheehan says that many communities in Ireland revolve around their GAA club and they are hugely important to them.

“You can make friends for life in these clubs because you go out on the field together to back one another up and then spend time afterwards together,” he says.

Sheehan says the clubs are a place for people to socialise even if they don’t play in the games because people come to support the teams and mingle and this keeps them connected to their local communities.

“Although traditional Irish sports do require some physical fitness, training and skill on the field in order to succeed, the concept of unity and having your teammate’s back is even more important and that’s essentially why our club was founded.

“We want it to be something that the community around our two branches in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap can be proud of and can connect with,” the 34-year-old teacher tells The Post.

Outside of sport, Sheehan says the clubs regularly get involved with helping the local community, like how they regularly donate blood through VOICE – an NGO that provides blood for transfusions to children who suffer from the rare blood disorder Thalassemia.

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Carrying the ball down the field during a women’s game. Photo supplied

The club has also volunteered with Gogreen Cambodia to assist with community trash clean-ups and held workshops at the Save Poor Children in Asia Organisation (SCAO) schools in an ongoing partnership with the NGO SCOOP.

“It’s about more than just sport. It’s a way of living – to give and receive in equal measure,” Sheehan says.

With the advent of the Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia, Sheehan says that at the moment all club activities have been put on hold.

However, the club members are still keeping in touch through the club’s group chats and amongst themselves. They have also implemented a workout from home routine for members to stay fit.

Sheehan says that it’s totally up to the individual members if they want to follow the workout routines or not – as long as they are happy and healthy, because that’s the only concern.

Sheehan says that his own memories of playing back in Ireland and winning championships with his childhood friends and also following his heroes who play for the national or county (provincial) teams still burn brightly for him.

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Cairde Khmer Club members helping out on a community clean-up effort. Photo supplied

“When travel starts to open up we will begin competing internationally again. We will get back into regular weekly training sessions. Hopefully tournaments will be back in full swing and we will bring back some trophies for Cambodia. It will also be great to get back into doing our work with the community,” he says.

Sheehan says the vision for the club is one of growth and that it would be fantastic to grow to a point where they could look at starting new clubs in more provinces and create an in-country competitive structure.

“The club is that it is open to everyone – all shapes, all sizes and all levels of skill. From the moment you come for your first training session you are part of the family forever – whether you are near or far.

“You will make life-long friendships and life-long memories as you go. It’s a fantastic way of travelling and seeing new cultures. If you show the dedication and desire to be the best version of you then open the door for us in your life and we will open doors for you,” Sheehan says.

For more information, the club can be contacted via their Facebook page: @CairdeKhmer.


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