“And it’s a holiday in Cambodia, where you’ll do what you’re told.”
By The Football Tragic
Cambodia is a country containing breathtaking temples, fertile plains dotted with rice fields, and a history unlike any other and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last three weeks exploring its beautiful landscape. Its breathtaking sights, including Angkor Wat – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – draws millions of tourists every year. However, with all the beauty that Cambodia has captured throughout time, at one point in its history, darkness devoured this fragile nation and its effects remain today. Once ruled by the French as part of French Indochina, years of civil war, turmoil, and political corruption followed as the Country began governed itself after seeking Independence. The Vietnam war slowly dragged Cambodia into darkness, including President Nixon’s secret bombings during the early 1970s which only led to the rise of communist leader Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge entourage. From 1975-1979, Cambodia turned into the infamous “Killing Fields” where nearly two million of Cambodia’s six million population were killed – a saddening period of time that the Country is still rebuilding from. Today, landmines still scatter the nation, dangerous remnants of war, resulting in an alarmingly high number of disabled people. In addition, its weak and sometimes ineffective government has allowed several illegal activities such as children sex trade continue to operate within Cambodia’s borders.
As an avid AFL fanatic and dyed in the wool Collingwood supporter, my departure from Tullamarine airport only hours after the wet and miserable twilight win over the Western Bulldogs, had left me disillusioned. The Pies had won, the weather was miserable and I was bound to spend the next 11 hours in cattle class next to a delightfully rotund individual snoring their way to Kuala Lumpur before I got near the promised 36 degree, 80% humidity days of Cambodia. Adding to my displeasure, I’d resigned myself to the realisation that my DreamTeam, SuperCoach and tipping results would all suffer in my absence, let alone my thirst to watch at least five games per week – it was going to be an intriguing trip, a great holiday, but some things I simply can’t live without.
Finding my seat on the plane, 36 rows deep and smack in the middle of a 5 seat main lane, my rotund snoring fears were dispelled quickly, I won the lottery with a slim man, decked out in shorts and a t-shirt with a North Queensland Cowboys beanie to boot – at least I’d have elbow room on the flight. Enter Shane Schofield, an expat Australian who’d resided in South East Asia for the past 6 years, a C.O.O of an insurance company, Shane had made Cambodia his home for the past 2 years. Our conversations general and brief, given the midnight takeoff, it wasn’t until our transit stop in KL where I was franticly checking my fantasy team results that our sporting conversation took off. My fiancé Kym explained to Shane, whilst I was head down over the mobile observing results, that I was a football tragic; completely unable to function without SEN, the ‘twitter family’ of football fanatics and AFL news. Shane listened intently, offered sympathy and then dropped a piece of intel that warmed the cockles of my heart. Shane wasn’t a huge AFL fan, but as an expat he knew where to point this football tragic, Australian Rules football proves to be a way of bringing people together, no matter where they are in the world and Shane was a member of the Cambodia Cobras.
I met Steve Morrish at the Aussie XL Bar on 51 Street in Phnom Penh, the meeting place of the Cobras, a bar/restaurant where a spit roast is cooked up every night on the street and the Angkor Draught is cold and flows freely, for a chat about the Cobras. Our initial introductions were completed via Facebook, I’d joined the Cobras discussion page to solicit the meeting, hoping to secure a membership and little more, I’d expected to hear the generic expat stories of boozing and partying, much like I’d observed years before in Thailand, but I was to be proved wrong. The Cambodian Cobras are the third incarnation of a football team within the country, after the now defunct Crocs of 2000 and Kangas of 2008. Formed in 2010, residing in the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh, it quickly formed into something far more pivotal than a social club. Through all the negativity stemming from Cambodia’s past, remarkable stories emanate out of this proudly defiant and beautiful environment. Stories like Steve Morrish, Soluy Loeurt and the Cobras.
Steve has played a significant role in the development and expansion of the Cobras and its potential importance within the Cambodian landscape. A former Detective with a decade of service within the Victorian Police Force, Morrish sought 12 months leave from his position to make a difference in the world, to assist in the investigation and breaking down of human trafficking and child prostitution rackets. When his request for leave was denied, Steve acted out on his own and packed his gear and moved to Cambodia, intent on utilising his policing skills for the benefit of a Country in need, the plan was for a year, that was 2005 and come 2011, he hasn’t returned to his native Australia. Obtaining work as a consultant to private enterprise in due diligence, intellectual property investigations, fraud detection and loss prevention, he has gone on to start his own NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) called SISHA. The not-for-profit organisation strives to ensure justice and the protection of human rights for victims of human trafficking, bonded labour, physical and sexual assault and other forms of exploitation and oppression in South East Asia. Working in close collaboration with local police, SISHA secures the rescue of victims from situations of oppression and immediately places them in safe custody.
As a Victorian, he grew up on a staple sporting diet of VFL/AFL football, supporting Carlton and playing with St. Bernards in the Amateurs, East Keilor in the EDFL and Carisbrook in the Maryborough Castlemaine District FL, and his passion for the game didn’t depart upon his arrival in Cambodia. The Cobras were to be a social club, but Morrish saw greater potential and wanted to see a sustainable and viable venture, a sporting club more than a social outlet for expats. He, along with others, established an executive committee, social committee and fundraising committee and went about constructing the foundations for sustainability, building a club that operates on the same level to those he played for back in Australia. Fulfilling the mantle of president and coach and with only a handful of Australian’s in the team, players taking the field in their infancy had rarely seen the game let alone played it – Germans, French, Americans, Irish, Brits and Dutch all suited up, only 5 players taking the field with any experience, a thorough flogging from a visiting Vietnam resulted.
The positives in the loss outweighed the negatives and the Cobras contacted Burley Sekem in Australia and secured jumpers and footballs, brandishing the colours of the Adelaide Crows with a Cobra emblazed. Their second game, some 6 weeks later against the same opposition saw another loss handed to them; however the margin significantly reduced to a four goal differential. Fast forward 12 months and the Cobras are flying on the field, recently participating in the Indo-China Cup, a four team competition where they recorded wins over Laos and Thailand but suffering an agonising defeat to Vietnam once again by a slim two goal margin. They have accumulated a playing squad of nearly 40, once again with only a handful of Australian’s, 140 paid up members of the club, secured involvement in the 2011 Asian Championships (12 team competition including Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Japan and Macau) and have introduced the first native Cambodian (Khmer) player into their team. But despite their progression on the field, it’s off the field where the Cobras are setting an example for the rest of Asia.
In November 2010, a contingent of first and second year players from the West Coast Eagles travelled to Cambodia as part of an induction program for the young elite footballers. The group spent time in Phnom Penh learning about the history of Cambodia, before travelling the small village of Tra Pang Saray, to build 20 houses for under-privileged families – Steve Morrish saw the benefits this could pose for the Cobras and made contact. Steve and the Cobras met with the travelling party and discussed with players and staff alike the problems that Cambodia and its people face – the poverty through to the sex trafficking. That simple approach, meeting and frank discussion planted the seeds for a project and venture that has the potential to change the lives of many Cambodians.
In just three weeks time, the Cambodian Cobras will become the Cambodian Eagles and will have a direct partnership with the West Coast; this venture is more than branding rights (The Adelaide jumper will be replaced by that of the Eagles – a CCFC to be placed on the back of the neck) though with the Eagles declaring their intent to maintain their Cambodian trip as part of their player and leadership development. The work the Eagles undertook in Tra Pang Saray in just five days will hopefully be undertaken in other villages requiring desperate assistance, in addition the agreement will see the players venture into communities to undertake clinics and showcase the game of AFL to another market, but more importantly, into villages and towns that know little more than farming and family. Additionally the Cambodian Eagles will be provided with equipment and merchandise, products that will come in very handy as they pursue a community program of extreme significance.
‘I Fought The Law (And I Won), Drinkin’ Beer In The Hot Sun’
Soluy Loeurt is a Khmer female, a school teacher, a humanitarian, orphanage volunteer, photographer, co-founder of Mekong Odyssey Travel, a company whose proceeds support local under privileged children to be educated and an AFL fanatic. Based in Siem Reap, some 240km or 6 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, Soluy in conjunction with the Cobras is bringing AFL to the masses, not bad for a young woman recently arrested on the premise of being a Thai spy, only for it to be revealed that she was taking photos for her own personal activities. Finding a passion for Australian Rules when a group of visiting teachers threw a ball and a Fremantle Dockers top at her last year and leaving her intrigued, she researched the game via Wikipedia and the Australian Network (TV Channel in Cambodia) and hasn’t turned back. Attracted by the novelty of seeing players kick the weirdly shaped ball at high speeds, her ongoing interest has been driven by affection for Australians and our culture. Upon receiving a coaching video from Australian colleagues, Soluy began teaching the game to a group of 50 students at Kralanh Primary in February. Soon, the group of footballers ballooned to 80 players between the ages of 12 and 18 and an additional 63 children from an orphanage Soluy volunteers at are the most recent enrolees. Now, with the involvement of the Cobras and Eagles, an AusKick program is in its formative stages of being established. Additionally, with the game now being played in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the two largest cities in the Country, Morrish’s sustainability fears are rapidly diminishing.
Steve, the Cobras and Soluy Loeurt are leaving undeniable marks on Cambodia and its communities. Via the NGO and Community work from SISHA, sex and human traffickers are being tackled head on and the sustainable football club dreamt of is afloat. The Cobras have two Khmer players, Soluy (the first and only female player) and a young man Thy, a former kickboxer who despite his initial struggles and endless attempts of kicking the ball over his head, is ‘one tough bastard’ and shows a desire for the contest like few others Steve has seen. The AusKick program will get off the ground in Siem Reap with Soluy’s involvement and hit the ground quickly in Phnom Penh with the assistance of Steve and the Cobra players, a program being ran with hand me down footballs and in an environment with little exposure to the game. A new playing field and clubrooms are well under construction within the Navy compound; the dimensions just shy of the size of the MCG and kept in better condition than the surface at Etihad! Importantly, the Club has secured corporate funding and sponsorship from Tiger Beer and ANZ Royal Bank, giving them the ability to invest back into the community and fund their entry into the 2011 Asian Championships.
Now the plans are expanding, with the first Khmer Football Competition in the sights of Steve and Soluy given the level of participation being observed. A netball team for female club members to compete against the other Countries when the lads take the football field is the next arm of the Club to get off the ground. Fundraising efforts are to be amped up after the successes of their 2010 Grand Final functions, where Paul Barnard and David Calthorpe attended as guests of honour, the event featuring an elite ‘AFL Members’ area where your $70USD entry fee secured two Four ‘n’ Twenty pies and ten Crownies along with bottomless local beer, full buffet breakfast & lunch! A return airfare and attendance to the event is cheaper than corporate seats at the ‘G’ on the big day.
Along with their affiliation with the Eagles and their next visit in the later stages of 2011, the beautiful country and people of Cambodia will not only directly benefit from the involvement, but given their rapid progression, Cambodia may be an AFL recruiter’s playground within the coming years. It’s imperative to note that all of this progress has come about in under 2 years and WITHOUT the involvement of the games governing body, the AFL. This progression is on the back of an expat, a Khmer national and the West Coast Eagles. Imagine the fast tracking, exposure and assistance possible to Cambodia with the assistance of Mike Fitzpatrick and the AFL Executive. Hopefully come 2014, we will see the Cambodian Eagles in the Australian Football International Cup competing against the more developed and experienced participating countries throughout the world – however, in the interim let’s hope that the impact and involvement of Steve and Soluy remains steadfast and local Cambodian communities are the primary beneficiaries of a game we all love and are inspired by.
You can follow the progress of the Cambodian Cobras via their facebook page, please join their feed. Steve Morrish’s SISHA organisation can be read about via www.sisha.org and donations can be made through the site. Soluy’s travels and tours business, Mekong Odyssey can be found at www.mekongodyssey.com. And you can follow me, the Football Tragic on twitter @nathcroughan.
‘It’s A Holiday In Cambodia, It’s Tough Kid, But It’s Life’
- The Football Tragic
These thoughts and opinions are those of the author and are not necessarily aligned with those of Nick Maxwell or the people at nickmaxwell.com.au
Comment posted by soluy loeut on 2011-08-11 18:31:53
Quite an interesting article Nick, I just found it so it might be a bit late to comment but anyway. Do let me know if you ever come back to the kingdom visit my children they may be very good players by that time. Cheers mate!
Comment posted by Tour to Cambodia confirmed on eve of Champs « Vietnam Swans on 2011-08-07 02:09:41
[...] West Coast Eagles, Cambodia have rebadged and rebranded themselves as the Cambodian Eagles. On NickMaxwell.com.au, The Football Tragic [...]
Comment posted by Football Tragic on 2011-05-31 07:52:02
Regarding the Australia Network, I don't think its 100% assured that they are eliminating the broadcasting. I was of the belief that they are downgrading their level of coverage. Happy enough to be advised I'm wrong there. That said, you are correct Anonymous - the network's decision (I believe funded by the ABC) will play a significant role in the ability to grow the game outside of our native shores.
Comment posted by Nellie on 2011-05-31 04:36:08
Fantastic article, footy is amazing in its ability to unite people. I'll definately be following the Cambodian Cobras, and well done to West Coast on their work too.
Comment posted by Holy Boot on 2011-05-30 22:40:41
Wow tragic, great piece! Love it when sport and in particular footy can be used as it should, to bring about social inclusion, and in this case, real change in peoples lives. Amazing what can happen when just one or two people pull their fingers out! Really interesting read, we've got no idea how hard life can be over here sometimes!
Comment posted by Rob on 2011-05-30 16:00:06
Great write up and story!! happy to be part of it all and meeting the young guns last moevember was awesome .. the boys are showing the difference this year on the track .... go the Eagles, we had the mag 7 now we got the young guns!!!!!
Comment posted by Lucas on 2011-05-30 12:42:09
What an inspiring story. The game, and the way people can use it to do good knows no bounds. How I long for the day when many countries play our indigenous game at standards we can only dream of now. Gold Coast and GWS today, Phnom Penh and Glasgow tomorrow! :)
Comment posted by Anonymous on 2011-05-30 11:56:43
I note the mention of Australia Network in the article, helping promote AFL around Asia. Shame that the network will stop all AFL coverage later this year. What can be done to stop that?
Comment posted by Anonymous on 2011-05-30 07:43:31
Thanks Nick for bringing this story to light. A wonderfully inspiring tale. More power to Steve Morrish and co.
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