With record attendance at Cambodian Premier League matches and the recent success of the Kingdom’s historic first hosting of the SEA Games, the Cambodian sports scene has never been healthier.

A new football league aims to give a taste of top-flight football to the capital’s amateurs, with full-sized pitches, a full referee and linesman set up – including a fourth official – and full match coverage will be made available online. 

Edited highlight packages will also be broadcast via social media, meaning would-be Chan Vathanaka’s can relive their greatest goals over and over again.

The competition, which aims to promote positive, healthy lifestyles, as well as bring Khmer and expat players together, has poignant beginnings.

The “Barnaart and Kenny Memorial League” was established by two local clubs to honour the passing of two men whose passion for the Kingdom, and its sporting development, was second to none.

Both men were intimately involved in the Phnom Penh football scene, with Irishman James Kenny playing and coaching with Riel Phnom Penh and Dutchman Billy Barnaart coaching the Bayon Wanderers FC. 

Barnaat, a physiotherapist by training, was one of the founders of the Jeanine and Billy Children’s Foundation. Begun in 2007, the organisation supports orphans and vulnerable children who are affected by HIV/AIDS by creating a loving, caring environment and providing a quality education. His philanthropy earned him recognition from the Dutch government, which named him a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassauin in 2017.

All of those who knew him mourned his passing on November 22 last year, following a major heart attack at the age of 71.

Kenny worked as a PE teacher at CIA First International School in Phnom Penh from 2019, sharing his love of sport with hundreds of young Cambodians. In his spare time, he also volunteered with several football and Gaelic teams. On November 12 last year, he lost his courageous battle with cancer. He was just 29.

The new competition, organised in honour of James Kenny (left) and Billy Barnaart, will kick off in early August. Supplied

The new league aims to continue both men’s work by providing a channel for emerging talent to experience a challenging competition.

At present, selection is open to any player who has not had a full-time professional contract in the past twelve months.

Each of the eight teams will field a full squad of 25 players, meaning opportunities will be available for young players to step up to another level and with four games a week scheduled in the league, there will be no shortage of pitch time for all.

Admission to all matches will be free, and with the Kingdom’s steadily growing thirst for live sport, it is certain that football-mad fans will be there to cheer on their heroes.

Karl Doherty, player-manager of Riel Phnom Penh and one of the league’s founders, sat down with The Post to share his excitement at the newest addition to the capital’s sporting landscape.

“We are beyond thrilled to be going ahead with the Barnaart and Kenny Memorial League. Personally, I can’t wait to see how the younger players develop. We expect around 70 per cent of the players to be Cambodian, and anticipate that this will grow every year,” he said.

He also spoke about the importance of honouring the legacy of the league’s namesakes.

“They were both great guys who gave so much of themselves to Cambodia, especially in terms of promoting sports and a healthy lifestyle. I am sure they would be proud of what we are trying to achieve here. It is a great privilege to be a part of this,” he added.

Doherty explained that each of the eight teams will meet twice, so the competition is sure to be balanced but competitive. 

“The first matches are scheduled for early August, with the league set to run for around four months,” he said.

At time of publication, a range of limited sponsorship opportunities were still available, with all potential patrons urged to come forward and support the league. 

Various packages are available, and with at least 200 players – and their legions of fans – involved in the grass-roots competition, this could be a valuable marketing exercise for the right partner organisations.

Sponsor’s contributions will go towards subsidising the players costs, including refereeing staff and pitch hire, ensuring that everyone can play, regardless of financial circumstances.

They will also be playing their part in keeping alive the memory of two very special members of the Phnom Penh sporting community.

Interested parties are welcome to contact the league’s administration team through their Barnaat & Kenny Memorial League social media channels, or at [email protected]