‘Are you here for the football?” the taciturn officer at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport’s Passport Control said with a hint of warmth after checking the documents in front of him.
Yes, was the answer. As football fever gripped Russia in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, for the first time Cambodia was taking part in the 6th Gazprom Football for Friendship Championship, a global tournament for 12-year-olds from 211 nations and regions taking place in Moscow in the run-up to the main event.
Sokheng Sengkea, the Kingdom’s representative on the pitch, attended a three-day camp before the competition to train with his Angel Shark teammates.
Sok Makara, the accompanying young journalist, was helping put out the event’s daily newspaper along with new-found colleagues from around the world.
The selection process from the different football federations yielded some promising young talent. Brazil’s youngster, Gustavo Cintra Rocha, who won the tournament’s most valuable player award for Team Komodo Dragon, was a member of Brazilian top-flight club Fluminese’s U13 team and so likely set for stardom, according to Diogo Netto, the Brazilian Football Confederation’s manager of technical development, social responsibility and sutainability.
And the young Northern Irish player was part of his country’s increasingly successful youth academy, said the Irish Football Association’s press officer, so also likely set for a professional career.
When approached by the Gazprom Football for Friendship organisers, the Football Federation of Cambodia, which doesn’t yet have an under-13s program, got in contact with poverty alleviation NGO Indochina Starfish Foundation, who they regularly cooperate with on underage and women’s competitions. Sengkea and Makara, two football-mad underprivileged kids with dreams of playing for Cambodia, were selected for their football ability and passion for the game.
On the day of the competition, held at Lokomotiv Moscow’s impressive junior and training stadium, the sun shone as the event’s 36 teams got down to business. After a 0-0 draw in the opening match, Sengkea’s Team Angel Shark clicked into gear with a 3-1 win in their second game, Sengkea scoring a cracking long-range goal into the bottom corner, a la Harry Kane.
Sengkea, employed as box-to-box midfielder, and making some crucial defensive interventions, began the fightback for his team when down in the deciding qualifying match, tucking in at the far post from a left-wing cross.
Coming agonisingly close on two other occasions from similar moves, his team fell just short of making the quarters but went out with their heads held high. Sengkea’s two goals from three games was an impressive return for a player in his position against such strong opposition.
“I am happy to have been given the opportunity to participate in the Football for Friendship program in Moscow,” Sengkea said. “It helped me to make a lot of friends from different countries, and I really liked playing football with them. The three-day training program before the championship helped me to improve and learn new football skills, which I will use in future matches.
“The championship was very exciting and I am happy to have performed well for my team. This has been an amazing experience.”
Makara said of his time in Moscow: “We were nervous before about meeting people from other countries and cultures but we soon all became friends as we had lots in common. We made many good friends from around the world – from India, China, Argentina and Korea – and we had a great time.”
Yin Marady of the FFC said after the event: “The boys were very shy before coming out to Russia for the Football for Friendship program, but now they have so much more confidence. I really think this experience will stand them in good stead for their future.”
Yin Samedy, no relation, of ISF, expressed a similar sentiment: “As you could see in Sengkea’s team’s first match, they didn’t play their best. But they grew in confidence and began playing better. This growing confidence we saw on the pitch is the perfect reflection of the new confidence we are seeing in him now as a young man after this experience.”
Here for the football? Indeed, and what an experience for the youngsters. But Makara and Sengkea return home with far more than incredible memories. It may be a cliche to talk of the power of sport to change lives, but for the two Cambodian boys, the Football for Friendship program was indeed a life-changing experience, one that will hopefully drive them on to fulfil their dreams of one day representing Cambodia.
And with the strength of talent on display in Russia, perhaps they might just meet some of their friends from Moscow again while doing so.