Spirit of Soccer Team Cambodia goalkeeper Rydam Sengvy rejoices after his side’s victory over Team England. STEVEN SONDERMAN/SOS
Spirit of Soccer defender Yem Vith battles with a Team England player during their Football for Hope Festival match at the Alexandra township pitch near Johanessburg. STEVEN SONDERMAN/SOS
With the Cambodian flag painted on her face, Spirit of Soccer striker Keng Channou sounds her vuvuzela in the stands during the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal between Spain and Paraguay. STEVEN SONDERMAN/SOS
THE Spirit of Soccer Cambodia team captured the hearts and minds of a global audience, not with their mastery of the Jabulani ball, but with their exemplary behaviour on and off the pitch. When the curtain came down on the Football for Hope Festival in one of the poorest slums in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, the loudest cheers were reserved for the Kingdom’s squad, who claimed the coveted Fairplay award at the 2010 World Cup sideshow.
The festival, which is a strategic alliance between the world football governing body International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the streetfootballworld network.
Thirty two teams drawn from disadvantaged communities around the world took part in the week-long event played from July 4-10, which uses the profile of football to help achieve sustainable social development.
The event was kicked off with two powerful messages from leading dignitaries of the 2010 World Cup. FIFA president Sepp Blatter and South African premier Jacob Zuma both attended the opening ceremony, and emphasised the significance of the festival which was running alongside the biggest sports show on Earth.
“We aim to leave a legacy in Africa that will last long after the final whistle of the 2010 World Cup is blown,” declared Sepp Blatter, while Jacob Zuma’s said “football is more than football; it is something far beyond.”
The most poignant observation came from Jurgen Griesbeck, Managing Director of Streetworldfootball. “From the minefields of Cambodia to the slums of Nairobi, football can bring hope to the lives of young people,” he stated.
For the eight Cambodian participants who went on the unforgettable South African excursion, life has seemingly turned a full circle.
“It was meant to be a game changer, and it has indeed changed their lives and their attitudes towards it,” said Stephen Sonderman, director of local NGO Spirit of Soccer, which gave the team, moral, material, logistical and financial support for the trip.
In terms of results, Cambodia ended in the less illustrious second tier having won two games and drawn two from their ten fixtures.
“The result simply did not matter, though some of the girls broke into tears and long spells of sadness after every defeat,” said Sonderman, who accompanied the team along with colleague Rachel Haig.
However, a hearty consolation was their promising performance against Brazil. “Our team was no match to the powerfully built Brazilians; the physicality was so glaring,” said Sonderman. “They went down 0-2, but that day Cambodia earned a lot of friends.”
The NGO director also noted the significant language barrier met by the Cambodian players, most of whom had never even left their provinces let alone fly abroad.
“We worked around this language problem by encouraging the players to learn to say hello in as many languages as possible. By the end of the trip some of them could say hello in 8 to 10. They were improving one hello at a time.”
With a complete absence of referees, the teams were made to agree on the rules in a pre-match meeting, and then assess each other at the end of the game, awarding a point for fair play.
To their amazement, Team Cambodia received a fairplay point from each and every one of their rivals, a record that was unmatched by any other team. The closest to the Kingdom’s tally came interestingly from Asia’s only other participant Magic Bus from India.
In the days leading up to the tournament, Cambodia also excelled along with India in the cultural exchanges, with an Apsara dance routine earning accolades. The two Asian nations agreed to exchange cultural and football visits over the next few months.
“It is a different world for us,” was the overall report from Cambodian team members after arriving back in Phnom Penh. Each player was gifted a Jabulani ball from the organisers, and many purchased an ear-splitting vuvuzela as a souvenir.
Major issues arising from the 2010 festival were the ethnic violence in Israel and Palestine, environmental pollution in slums of Kenya, HIV and AIDS awareness in South Africa, the impact of landmines on lives in Cambodia and gang culture in Equador.
“The social evils are at your feet and you can kick them away,” read a message at the newly built stadium in Alexandra township, scene of unprecedented xenophobic attacks in 2008. The hope is that the message will continue to be spread around the world, as the young footballers revel in memories of their South African experience.