AsiaNatasha HenryComment

The Siem Reap Soccer League

AsiaNatasha HenryComment

Natasha Henry on how the shared language of football has made a massive difference to a community.

There are few words that are universal regardless of the country you are in or the language spoken. Football is one of those words. A farmer in Zimbabwe, a prince in Monaco and a surfer in Australia will all be familiar with their own version of the beautiful game. Whether your goalposts are made of jumpers or they are drawn in chalk on a wall is regardless. A goal is still a goal. A team is still a team. And a win will still give you that same euphoric feeling, regardless of the trophy on offer.

Former Bristol City Academy coach Garry Hodder knew this after his work as the Rural Community for Sports coach for West Norfolk Borough Council. Following a stint working as a coach at one of the Cambodian centres in January 2009, he returned ten months later to set up the Junior Soccer League in Siem Reap. The village is situated in North-western Cambodia, part of South East Asia. It is the gateway to the temples of Angkor; an area that attracted a lot of press attention in the 1960's when it was popular with international stars such as Jackie Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin.

Gary's idea was to create a scheme that all children could participate in, choosing football because: “most children (even the poorest) have seen games on television and have a great enthusiasm for the game.”

Having coached professionally for 15 years and being an FA Level 2 coach it was natural that he would choose this particular sport. He started with US$1,000 (£621) of his own money and US$500 (£311), which was donated by Globalteer Director, Jim Elliott, whom he met through friends. With this minimal budget he set up the league with Globalteer aiding with accommodation and handling all future donations.

In only their second season the league is going great guns. There are 384 children involved in the fifteen-week league which runs from December to April, the coolest months; although the temperatures can still hit 20 degrees centigrade. Twenty-two teams cover three age groups (under eleven, fourteen & seventeen) with girls, boys and mixed teams all competing against each other, the only prerequisite is that they want to play. There is no prize money but all of the eight projects/schools participating receive a trophy to display in their centre.

The matches are played on half-field pitches with smaller goals; games are seven-a-side and each of the ten lasts thirty minutes, again this is partly down to the hot weather conditions. They hire a private football pitch to stage their matches but unlike even the Hackney Marshes this field has very little grass and is extremely dusty. They don't have the option to hire a grass field due to the expense it would entail.

But this is not about talent scouting or finding Asia's answer to Wayne Rooney or teaching them the perfect way to take a free-kick. This project teaches these children skills they may not otherwise learn such as 'teamwork, organisation and sportsmanship.' As well as the children that take part, Gary has trained and employed three local referees and four helpers to prepare the pitch and pack away the equipment at the end of each match day. He will continue to share his expertise with those who are enthusiastic so hopefully one day they can take over the running of the league. A handful of local food vendors also arrive on match days to sell their products. On an average Sunday up to four hundred people attend, some playing and the others supporting. The feedback Gary is getting from the parents is great and I imagine a little heart-warming.

But like most great causes, this requires money to remain a going concern. This year it has cost just under US$2,500 (£1,552) but the intention is to employ coaches to work with the children all year long and to potentially rent or purchase their own football pitch. This would raise their annual costs to something in the region of US$3,000 (£1,863) – about seventy-five minutes work for Wayne Rooney. I can only imagine how the children's morale would improve with continual coaching and a pitch that belonged to them, their family and their community. With extra volunteers and some regular funding it is amazing what a little amount can do for so many.

Unfortunately without any additional funding Gary can only afford to fund the Siem Reap Soccer League for one more year and I for one, think that would be an unbelievable shame.

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