'Don't play with land mines. Play football', read the sign at Tuesday's
Spirit of Soccer tournament, one of several sports initiatives
targeting Cambodian youth
Children from Aziza's Place, an NGO-run home in Phnom Penh for
disadvantaged youth, train on a dirt pitch outside Olympic Stadium.
Several NGOs in Cambodia are using football to develop life skills for
children, be it through encouraging leadership and fair treatment of
others, mixing educational messages about landmines with match play, of
just giving kids a chance to be kids.
ON a small triangle of ground outside Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, 13
boys and girls kick footballs around carefully spaced cones on a dirt
The players, unfazed by the searing midday sun, look almost identical -
partly because of the brand-new Barcelona FC kit they proudly don for
practice, but more so for the ear-to-ear grin each flashes.
These would-be Ronaldinhos and Eto'os are taking part in one of several
increasingly popular junior football programs run by NGOs across
Cambodia, which use sport to enhance children's lives.
The kids here today are from Aziza's Place, a foreign-managed home and learning centre for disadvantaged children.
Brought to the ground twice a week, the group spends an hour kicking
balls and being put through their paces with fitness exercises under
the watchful eye of a trained coach.
Participant Touch Chanty came to Aziza's Place from Kampong Cham a year ago.
"Playing football is very good for my health," said the sprightly 13-year-old.
THE PRIORITY ... IS TO CLOTHE
[THE CHILDREN], TO FEED THEM, TO PROVIDE MEDICAL CARE. SPORT IS
A FANTASTIC ADDED BONUS.
"I am very sorry when I see there are many street children who live
near the road without a house or place to sleep. They might want to
play football but they cannot because they have to find money."
'A fantastic bonus'
Coach Lee Heang leads a discussion about the dangers of land mines with
young footballers at a Spirit of Soccer tournament in Battambang on
Chanty's team train under an Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF)
program, which counts about 1,000 children and 17 organisations as
Kate Griffin, ISF country manager, said football provides a childhood
to youngsters who might not otherwise have one, while at the same time
increasing their confidence and improving their health.
ISF facilitated the program by finding sponsors who paid for organisations to equip, train and field teams.
Without the contributions, most of the member organisations could not
easily afford a football program, or justify it as an expense to donors.
"The priority of these organisations is to clothe [the children], to
feed them, to provide medical care. Sport is a fantastic added bonus,"
Aziza's Place director Nader Ebrahimi agreed.
"We wouldn't be able to rent out this spot at the Olympic Stadium...
and we wouldn't spend money on the gear or a coach - definitely not,"
the American said.
Ebrahimi said the program has had a huge impact on the children, especially the girls.
"It's been obvious, it's given them a confidence that seems to affect
their academic study and social skills," he told the Post.
"There was a group that was a lot shyer than others and now they come
back [from training] with their heads held high and they feel they can
hold their own."
Learning life skills
ISF's scheme follows - and learns from - a similar project run in
Battambang by the Sports and Leadership Training (SALT) Academy.
The academy's founder and director, Sam Schweiugruber, began the
programs there two years ago and now has more than 600 children taking
part, most of them under age 14.
The majority of participants come from poor or middle-class households, Schweiugruber said.
As the name of the organisation suggests, the mission at the SALT
Academy is to develop kids' life skills as much as their dribbling
Players are required to be at training half an hour before the footballs come out, for a discussion led by the coach.
"It's nothing too intense," Schweiugruber said. "It might be showing
them a picture of [Liverpool player] Steven Gerrard and [Arsenal
player] Cesc Fabregas shaking hands, and talking about the importance
of fair play."
Following on from this mission, older players were encouraged to coach and mentor the younger players.
The Spirit of Soccer
Schweiugruber said his program is about football and "allowing kids to
be kids". "We are running on a really small budget, but it's good. I'm
not trying to get rich off this thing and I'm not driving a big car."
Another successful scheme operating out of Battambang is Spirit of Soccer (SOS).
The brainchild of Englishman Scott Lee, SOS has operated since 1996 in
former and existing war zones - including Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq - in
the area of mine-risk education (MRE).
Based near the heavily mined northwest of Cambodia, the NGO takes its footballs and mine-risk message to schools in the region.
"Day in, day out we visit schools and do football training sessions,"
Lee said. "We set up four skill sessions and the kids do 20 minutes at
At the end of training, an open discussion takes place between the
coach and players about the dangers of land mines and unexploded
In much the same way organisations in Western countries tell students
they should not start smoking if they want to be good at sport, SOS
tells students they need all their limbs if they want to be
professional athletes; the underlying message is common to the students
but the association with sport is designed to get them thinking.
"Our work is to reinforce and support the work of the Ministry of
Education, and take [their message] out of the classroom," Lee said.
"Wherever the child casualties are highest is where we concentrate our
operations, for a couple of months at a time."
So far, more than 38,000 Cambodian children had been through the SOS program, Lee said.
Tournaments are occasionally held too, including one that took place
Tuesday in Battambang, drawing 200 children from three of the country's
most heavily mined provinces - Battambang, Pailin and Banteay Meanchey.
Games involving 10 boys' and four girls' teams were played through the
day, broken up by a land miine education session led by the referees.
One of the refs, Lee Heang, said he tried to remind the players they needed their limbs to be successful in life.
Showing the players pictures of injured children, Lee Heang described
how each had been hurt. Some had been maimed while feeding cows in a
mined field; others from playing with mines.
"I also told them not to turn the mine signs around, because this can put other people in danger," Lee Heang told the Post.
When it's fun, it works
Each participant at Tuesday's get-together took away a football strip,
textbook and - Englishman Lee hopes - a determination not to mess with
mines and unexploded ordnance.
Funded to the tune of $150,000 a year, with sponsors including the US
State Department, British government and Fifa, SOS Cambodia employs
nine fulltime staff.
Some argue this money would be better spent on mine clearance, although
Lee says educating children about the dangers of land miines is
"Yes, more money needs to be spent on de-mining too, but it would be
irresponsible not to put money into MRE for children," he said.
"What we do is we do MRE in a different way and an interesting way."
And, with just one recorded instance of a participant in SOS program
losing a limb to a mine - and there have been 80,000 participants
worldwide - Lee and his coaches have statistics to fall back on.
Numbers aside, though, if the smiles across the faces of these young
footballers are any measure, the likes of SOS, SALT and ISF really are
bringing new meaning to "the beautiful game".