Michael Batson

Travel Writer





The Beautiful Game in the Kingdom of Wonder - 20 September 2012

Football in Cambodia, the self-styled Kingdom of Wonder, doesn’t scale the heights of the Beautiful Game in other countries. There are no huge stadiums, well, there’s one old one, no large crowds “doing the Poznan” and singing en masse or waving scarves and flags, no massive pay cheques on offer or transfer fees, and no superstars. A few people in Cambodia drive expensive cars, but they aren’t footballers.

But the worldwide appeal of football can be seen in Cambodia. On Saturdays in Phnom Penh, kids kick a ball about in the few schools with a park large enough for a game, like Lycee Sisowath between Norodom Boulevard and Rue Pasteur where the pitch is small and almost devoid of grass. All over the country men, boys and girls wander about in various football regalia, usually replica kits of English and European clubs, and national sides like Brazil, and sport shirts bearing the name of Lionel Messi and Didier Drogba. alt

In a roadside stall on a dusty road in rural Cambodia is a poster of David Beckham. At the customs post at Poipet, one of the main border crossings to Cambodia is a life size poster of the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard. Cristiano Ronaldo advertises hair products. Markets and shops from the Phnom Penh Riverside to the wonderful art deco Central Market, street stalls and family shops in towns across the country sell a wide range of football gear at knock down prices, more if you can haggle.

Football, like many other aspects of life in Cambodia, is still rebuilding from the heyday of the 1960s. Like so many things about life in Cambodia there’s before the Khmer Rouge and then there’s life after. Back before the KR and the descent into civil war and genocide, Cambodia was something of a regional football powerhouse along with Thailand and Burma, the latter’s decline even more marked than that of Cambodia.

Amazingly, in 1971 as the country was beginning to disintegrate, beginning its long journey into night, Cambodia still managed to field a team at the Southeast Asian games played in Kuala Lumpur. The national side beat Laos, drew with Thailand before losing to the hosts, Malaysia, who made the finals where they were beaten by Burma winning their fourth title.

Today the game is getting by with scarce resources, fledgling infrastructure, and little money. There are few proper pitches in the country, and organised sport is still a luxury.

Where it exists sport is impromptu and recreational, it can also be dangerous. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries on Earth and the countryside is badly contaminated with unexploded ordnance. In rural Cambodia finding somewhere to play games that isn’t lethal or that is not needed for agriculture can be difficult.

Facilities aren’t much better in towns. Cambodia has only one stadium worthy of the name, the “new” Olympic Stadium in the capital, Phnom Penh. The “old” stadium was a more modest structure located at the northern end of Monivong Boulevard near the Japanese Friendship Bridge. Sadly last I heard, it has succumbed to another property development in a city already awash with new apartments, and one of the city’s few sports facilities is no more.

The new stadium itself is a huge concrete bowl seating up to 80,000 and which resembles the darkened skeleton of some giant creature or hulk of a vessel.  Designed by the famed Khmer and French-trained architect Vann Molyvann, who also designed Phnom Penh’s distinctive Independence Monument, the stadium complex also includes a swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts, and an 8,000 seat indoor sports arena located beneath the main grandstand.  

Opened in 1964 in front of 100,000 it was seen as a symbol of self-sufficiency and neutrality in post-colonial Cambodia. The stadium was built entirely with Cambodian funds, unusual even for today as any new infrastructure is almost entirely funded by foreign aid.

The stadium has some history. In a historical curiosity it hosted a World Cup qualifier in 1965 between Australia and North Korea. In 1966, it staged the Games of the New Emerging Forces, which gathered the world’s “non-aligned” nations seeking an Olympic style sports festival.  French President Charles de Gaulle gave a famous speech there in 1966, praising Cambodia’s neutrality and calling for peace in Indochina during what was then the height of the Vietnam War.

Today the fledgling national club competition in Cambodia is the C-League sponsored by mobile phone provider, Metfone. Only one of the ten teams taking part in 2012, Kirivong Sok Sen Chey from Takeo province south of Phnom Penh is not based in the capital. Clubs derive names from universities like Build Bright and Western, or are backed by the powerful military and police forces. Other industry teams are Boeung Ket Rubber Field, and those backed by gambling and entertainment, like Nagacorp and Phnom Penh Crown.

The prize money on offer sounds impressive, 50 million riels for the winning club, but divide that by 4,000 to get the dollar value, and it’s the princely sum of just US$12,500. Most local players earn a few hundred dollars a month at best, the imports more. Still it’s good money in a country where most people struggle to earn $100 per month.

Many of the imports are West African, some of whom have plied their trade around the Middle East and other parts of Asia before turning up in Cambodia. I once knew a guy called Douglas, a professional from Brazil, a fine player who, like the Africans, towered over the more diminutive Khmers.

Many of the coaches are expats too. Dave Booth is the coach of reigning champions Phnom Penh Crown succeeding a Croatian, Bojan Hodak. Crown used to be Phnom Penh United and also Phnom Penh Empire among other incarnations before being taken over by a local magnate. Dave hails from Barnsley in Yorkshire and has coached football in Asia and beyond for over 30 years. He’s previously coached professional sides in England and India before moving to Southeast Asia. He once coached Myanmar the country in Asia he likes best of all.

Dave can provide some colourful insights into the beautiful game in Cambodia, though he’s far from impressed by the administration and shenanigans of football there, not least in his own club. The off-field management of the side is conducted by an Australian, whose only qualification for the job apparently, is that he once managed a massage parlour. After winning the league last season, Dave went to Thailand to see his family only to come back and discover they’d sold most of his best players without his knowledge.

There are also all kinds of machinations behind the scenes in Cambodia with threats and intimidations from the army and police teams for star players in other sides to make themselves unavailable when their fixtures are scheduled, a form of match fixing. Then there’s the debacle around the national side and the latest coach, a Korean, who seems to have little say in who actually plays for the side.

Internationally, Cambodia is currently ranked 188 in the world by FIFA, squeezed between Somalia and the British Virgin Islands, higher than neighbours, Laos, and down from the giddy heights of 154th two years ago.

A day out to watch a match at the home of football, the Olympic Stadium, provides a great insight into the game in Cambodia. The stadium occupies a huge piece of land at the junction of Sihanouk, Monireth and Nehru boulevards. A mass of motorcycles are parked on the expanse of concrete near the main gate. A series of concrete pitches separate the vehicles from the ramp up to the main stand. Given the oppressive heat and playing surface, the games are surprisingly robust.

Entrance to the stand costs $1.50. There are no allocated seats so you can sit anywhere there’s room. Hawkers ply the crowd with food and drink. Crown was playing the second match of a double-header. The main stand was nearly full and there were a smattering of spectators spread about the terraces opposite. The playing surface at the stadium is awful. The standard is that of enthusiastic amateurs with the odd display of skill, and can be a frustrating spectacle. Occasionally my eyes wandered over to the stands opposite where an expat was jogging half the circumference of the ground making his way up row by row to the top of the spectators, to where there were mixed jazz aerobics classes underway.

Just watching football is tiring as the heat wears you out. The peculiarities of Cambodia mean that land mines and lethal threats aren’t the only dangers of playing football. Recently, three Cambodian football players were killed by a lightning bolt, which also put three others in hospital during the same match in Phnom Penh. Players and coaches are now warned not to play on fields during the monsoon months if thunderclouds loom overhead. But today there was just the heat, sun and the traffic home.

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