National University Championships conclude Thursday with a well-attended volleyball final at Olympic Stadium, wrapping up along with tournaments in basketball, football and athletics
ONCE per year, university students across Cambodia are given respite from their studies for a two-week period in July. The sporting elite from the academic world swap textbooks for trainers and seminars for stadiums to take part in the University Championships.
The competition has a 10-year history, with both competitors and supporters eagerly anticipating the opportunity to compete against their peers. Each university provides teams to participate in four different disciplines: football, basketball, volleyball and athletics, with the events mainly played in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium.
This year, five institutions took part in the event: Build Bright University, Norton University, University of Technology, Human Resource University and Mekong University. Despite the fact that there were 50 percent fewer teams competing than the previous year, the standard of play remained high.
With the court still looking dangerously wet just minutes before the final day of the basketball tournament, a number of cleaners tried their best to soak up puddles with the limited tools available.
Going into Wednesday's game, Human Resource University had already clinched the crown, meaning their game against Mekong University was academic.
The champions, playing in red jerseys, put on a basketballing master class against Mekong University and raced into a 34-22 lead by half-time. Their most effective work was done off the boards, with Touch Sothearith often gathering crucial rebounds and launching swift counterattacks that the Mekong defence was powerless to prevent.
There was a brief rally from Mekong after the interval, inspired by Phat Sarum, as they scored eight unanswered points to close the gap to just four. Their respite was short-lived, however, and despite barely budging from second gear, Human Resource soon regained their dominance and ran out a comfortable 15 points ahead, 56-41.
It was a hugely enjoyable occasion, with one of the most striking aspects being the exceptionally high level of sportsmanship on display. Players always helped one another up, apologised to one another after fouls and respected the referee's decisions.
Mak Chanphirun, General Secretary of the Cambodian Basketball Federation, was clearly delighted with the way the tournament had gone: "Human Resource University certainly deserved their title, but this year was one of the most competitive we have had, with all the teams quite evenly matched," he said. "There were a lot of games decided by just two or three balls, which made it very exciting, and I think this is a good thing for the competitiveness of the championship and for the game as a spectacle."
However, despite paying huge testament to the players' efforts and to the friendly-yet-competitive nature of the event, Mak Chanphirun voiced concerns over Cambodia's ability to take the game to the next level.
"It is difficult for the players to improve because there aren't many tournaments, which means there isn't much opportunity for them to train," he remarked. "When the University Championship is coming, they will usually train for two or three months beforehand. If we had more competitions in Cambodia, the players would train more, and the standard would improve; that is where we would like to get to eventually."
It was a sentiment echoed by Lor Syngharith, Assistant Coach of Cambodia's national team, who stated that basketball is still not popular in Cambodia compared to other sports. "This is largely down to the fact that the equipment needed to play it is expensive," he noted. "Especially when compared to football or volleyball, and this makes it less accessible for the people. These other sports are already played everywhere and it is easier for the public to do so, so it will be difficult for basketball to catch up."
Following what was a hugely enjoyable occasion for all concerned, such comments, if realistic, seemed to be overly negative. Thankfully, there were no such downbeat ruminations Thursday, despite the fact that players and fans alike had to assemble at the ungodly hour of 7:30am for the volleyball final.
With a packed arena to entertain, the players of Build Bright and Norton Universities soon set about putting on a most intoxicating show of sporting prowess and drama. With the final played in a best-of-five series, it all seemed set for a whitewash when Build Bright took a two sets to zero lead, winning the first 25-23 and the second 25-20.
The Build Bright supporters were in full voice, exchanging good-natured songs and cheers with their opponents on the other side of the arena. Out of nowhere though, Norton turned their game around in the third encounter and had two match points at 24-22, only for Build Bright to pull it back to 24 apiece.
The noise was incessant, and when Norton deservedly took the set 27-25, the joy and celebrations were a sight to behold. A fourth set ensued, and with the score at 24-23, there was a net battle Build Bright thought they had won only for the referee to intervene and controversially give the point to Norton.
The game then see-sawed dramatically, with both teams throwing away match points before Norton took the series to a fifth and final set, in which they eventually triumphed 31-29. It seemed, however, that their heroics had taken the wind out of them, and when Build Bright triumphed by five clear points in the final set, the mixture of excitement and exasperation was tangible.
Smiles, though, were a permanent fixture on the faces of both sets of players and on the thousands of supporters who had added so much to the spectacle. It had been a thrilling morning of sport, at times exhausting just to watch, and this is something to be cherished.
There is a preoccupation here with how Cambodian sport measures up against that of other countries, a constant worry and dissatisfaction about the quality on display. At the moment though, most sports are in their infancy, and there is none of the pressure involved in most Western countries, where footballers are millionaires in their teens and entire futures can depend on how a basketball player performs in a single college game.
If there was an overriding emotion which prevailed at the University Championship, if one adjective could be used to describe it, it would be fun. And in the end, isn't that what sport is meant to be all about?