Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Homeless football players return, cupless but happy

Homeless football players return, cupless but happy

Homeless football players return, cupless but happy

081211_02.jpg
081211_02.jpg

Back from the Homeless World Cup in Australia, footballers say their trip was about more than just winning or losing

Photo by:
Thomas gam nielsen

Sam Yi and Leuk Chhounmalivath, both 17, arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport Tuesday after competing in the Homeless Word Cup in Melbourne.

WITH sleep still in their eyes, a bleary five-player football team - Cambodia's representatives at the 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne - stumbled off the plane Tuesday in Phnom Penh, together with their coach and team manager, after a long flight home.

For the last week, they had spent a total of two hours and 34 minutes on football pitches in 11 matches against disadvantaged people from Sierra Leone, Russia, Sweden, Argentina, New Zealand and India among other countries, but now they were happy to be back.

The five players, aged 16 to 18, had bronze medals hanging off their shoulders after beating Sweden in the losers' pickup cup called the ISPN Networking Trophy. It was one of only two victories throughout the tournament, but players said the opportunity to meet new people was worth more than the competition itself.

"I am glad to have met other people who are homeless and poor, and we made good friendships with each other," said 18-year-old Nhanh Vannak,who lives at the Centre for Children's Happiness (CCH). At Phnom Penh International Airport immediately after the team returned, he told the Post that sharing experiences with homeless people from around the world was the best part of the trip, adding that they exchanged a lot of souvenirs with the other teams.

"I feel very happy about meeting people from different countries all over the world. To win or lose was not important to me," 17-year-old Leuk Chhounmalivath said.

Moung Bunroeun, who also lives at the CCH, said he never knew that Sweden had homeless people until he played against them.

"They were very tall, but we were younger than them and we won," he said, adding that people were friendly with each other. With only a little English vocabulary, he said that he often had to use body language to communicate, and they would sometimes hug their opponent after the match.

The opening ceremony with Aboriginal dance was the greatest experience for Moung Bunroeun, and in general the international atmosphere, where he was exposed to several different  languages and cultures, stunned him. But the cooler climate and the food were the biggest challenges, though his new street-soccer jacket and cap kept him warm, and a decision to only eat bread eased the other culinary difficulties.

Moun Bunroeun is not an orphan, but his parents sent him from their native Banteay Meanchey province to work in Phnom Penh with relatives.   CCH took him in and helped with his education. Now, he is finishing his last year of high school.

The Cambodian team stayed with other players at the University of Melbourne.

All the players from the Cambodian team agreed that Australia was a nice-looking country.

"There are good roads," Nhanh Vannak said, adding: "There is even no rubbish along them."

Staying on down under

Unlike Cambodia's young footballers, not all team members who participated in last week's tournament were happy to return home.

According to news reports in Australia Wednesday, up to 15 players, including athletes from Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, have sought asylum.

The Australian Department of Immigration confirmed on Sunday that the players had applied for "further visas" but declined to state whether the players had formally sought asylum.

"As of December 9, 15 applications for further visas have been lodged by participants of the Homeless World Cup," a spokesman told AFP.

In addition, the entire Liberian women's team was also believed to have "missed flights" out of the country after the tournament closed on Sunday, while a Kenyan player was still missing.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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