Cambodia’s five-man team did well at the international football tournament held in Scotland in July. Captain Chan Minea won the Best Male Player Award, and the team won one of the trophies on offer – the Men’s Globe – demolishing Sweden in their final game. The contest’s real rewards, however, lie within.
With deft footwork, Chan Minea weaves past his teammates and sends the ball sailing. It hits the back of the net. Goal!
The 18-year-old, who stands just shy of five feet, is practising at his home pitch near Phnom Penh’s Russian market on a sweltering Saturday.
Six weeks ago, Minea, the team captain, and his teammates were hoisting a trophy high above their heads in Glasgow, Scotland; 10,000 kilometres from Phnom Penh and, even during a British summer, the coldest climate they had ever experienced.
Minea, along with teammates Man Ramao, Roeng Narat, Long Sophearith and goalkeeper Keo Sang, represented Cambodia at the 2016 Homeless World Cup (HWC). Made up of impoverished (and some orphaned) teens, their team scored an 8-2 victory over rival Sweden to claim the Globe trophy in their pool.
The two nations could hardly paint a more contrasting picture. For a start, Sweden is far richer than Cambodia – its GDP per capita is nearly 60 times that of the Kingdom.
And when it comes to homelessness, that difference is stark, too. According to the HWC, roughly 34,000 of Sweden’s nearly 10-million-strong population is homeless – sleeping rough or in temporary dwellings. A growing number are women escaping domestic violence.
Although there is no official definition of homelessness in Cambodia – which has a population of about 16 million – HWC reckoned more than 180,000 people live in informal settlements in Phnom Penh alone, with about 20,000 street children. Nationwide, the number is surely higher.
This year, the organisers of Cambodia’s team were able to raise the funds to send five players to Glasgow. For the five, who have battled disadvantage, the cup was a dream come true.
Take 16-year-old Narat, for example, whose parents died when he was still a child. “I was very happy and also proud, because our team was the first Cambodian team to finally get an award,” he says, adding that he had never seen a country as beautiful as Scotland.
Seventeen-year-old Ramao, who dropped out of school at a young age and who later studied English at a vocational school, never imagined he would be selected.
“I feel very confident after the cup … my skills have improved,” he says. “After [learning English], I’ll find a job.”
It fell to Minea to inspire his players against their towering Nordic foes.
“Even though they are bigger, they have experience, we should play as hard as we can,” he says of his advice before the game.
For Minea, the third in his family to take part in a Homeless World Cup, victory was made sweeter when he won the Best Male Player Award. Not that winning brings financial reward; the HWC measures its success in self-esteem.
Like many of the Cambodian HWC players over the years, Minea has a chequered past. His father died when he was still in Grade 11 and, knowing he was not destined to be a scholar, and not wishing to be a financial burden on his mother, he dropped out.
Life as a gangster followed, and he regularly got into fights.
Football changed his life – even though he wasn’t able to attain his dream of going professional. On his return from the HWC, Minea has opted for a steady job: repairing windows and doors for $5 a day.
Two of his predecessors, though, did manage to make that transition. Men Monira and Hem Sreng play professionally for Svay Rieng and Boeung Ket football clubs. Another nine have become assistants to Happy Football Cambodia Australia (HFCA), the program that sent them to the HWC in the first place, alongside coach Jimmy Campbell. Others, like Minea, have taken vocational training or secured jobs, a vital step on their personal road.
HFCA’s program assistant Chao Vibol says good character – not merely good football skills – is a prerequisite for selection to the HWC squad. His job is also to act as a “father” to players; that role runs the full gamut: from reminding touring players to brush their teeth every day, to helping one player who became entangled in drugs to quit using and assisting him in landing a job in a laundry. It can turn around lives, he says.
“Before, they thought people don’t care about them, but I told them, ‘You see, we help you, but also you have to help yourself’,” he says. “One player cried because nobody had ever [treated him] like that before because he was poor – some people don’t allow their kids to play with poor children.”
HFCA was set up by Irishman Paraic Grogan, who has seen the potential the HWC can bring – though he is the first to acknowledge it’s no guarantor of success. Three former players have ended up in prison over drugs or theft charges, for instance.
That’s why following up with the players – and those whose aspiration to go to HWC were not realised – is so important. Next weekend the organisation will hold a reunion match for former players. If program managers notice they are struggling, they can help.
Grogan says it’s seldom easy to get the team to the venue each year, or even to bring a full team of eight. Although food and accommodation are covered in the host city (the best thing for the players is having their own shower and toilet, he says), the tournament is often held in Europe or South America, so getting there comes at a high price: around $40,000.
The money goes on flights, passports, travel visas, insurance, training gear, national kits, staff wages and other associated costs. And although Smart Mobile and Credit Bureau Cambodia helped out, HFCA still has to fundraise to cover the full cost.
Another challenge is getting visas for Cambodian players – who, being homeless, don’t have earnings or bank accounts.
“I don’t know why some foreign nations make it so difficult for Cambodian nationals to visit,” Grogan says. “I think Cambodia should be treated the same as everyone else.”
Despite all the difficulties, the effort is worth it, says Grogan, which is why Cambodia has sent nine teams in nine consecutive years. “It doesn’t just benefit the potential eight players that go every year. It’s something for the others to believe in, an inspiration to stay focused,” he says.
That’s important, too, in a city whose authorities take a hardline approach to homelessness, rounding up beggars and other “undesirables” and taking them to the notorious Prey Speu centre where rehabilitation is promised but never delivered, and reports persist of detainees being abused, extorted, and detained for months on end.
HFCA’s players, some of whom are as young as 12, know that a team will go to the HWC every year; the chance that they might be selected keeps them motivated. One player, says Grogan, trained every Saturday for eight years to reach that goal.
“That’s why the Homeless World Cup is so important: it gives a goal and focus for all of these players,” he says.
“At least once in their lifetime, they have an opportunity to be treated as an equal. They are treated as superstars.”
Indeed, during the HWC in Mexico, crowds tens of thousands strong cheered on the “small warriors” of Cambodia.
“When people treat you like you’re a hero, it really helps to rebuild confidence,” Grogan says. That rebuilding will continue through the year, with scores of young people running exercise drills and practising ball control at the Phnom Penh pitch as HFCA gears up for its 10th HWC next year in Oslo, Norway.
HFCA has another goal too: to ensure there are enough female players so that Cambodia can finally enter a team for the women’s competition, and to persuade the male coaches here that girls can and should play football. Perhaps next year Cambodia will be able to return with two trophies, not one.
The HWC: a global focus
The HWC, which was founded in 2001, sees a truncated version of football played on a small pitch, with just four players per side. Among those eligible to compete are the homeless, people who live in informal settlements and ex-drug users. Players may take part in only one tournament, freeing up opportunities for other footballers the following year.
This year’s was the 14th HWC and the ninth in which a Cambodian team has participated. More than 50 teams took part in the week-long contest in Glasgow, watched by 100,000 people over more than 400 matches.
The overall men’s and women’s cups were won by Mexico, matching its achievement at last year’s HWC in Amsterdam. Next year’s contest will take place in Oslo.
However, the concept is not embraced by everyone. Thailand has never entered a team, for instance.
James Sutherland is the communications officer with Friends International, a non-profit that works with homeless people. While the HWC has clear benefits – increasing self-esteem, having an opportunity to travel, and participating in sport “at a level they perhaps had never dreamed of” – some issues needed to be addressed.
“Calling it the ‘Homeless’ World Cup may well be stigmatising for many participants,” he said. “They may be striving to move up and away from difficult life situations, [and won’t benefit from being] branded with the ‘homeless’ tag.”
And, he adds, the costs are high too.
“That $40,000 could be invested in programs to help marginalised youth that would have a greater long term, and indeed sustainable, impact upon their lives,” he said.