A fledgling football program is helping hundreds of Cambodia's poorest and most disadvantaged youth learn some serious football skills.
Thanks to a cooperative project between the FCC and the Cambodian Football Federation, more than 450 orphans, foster children and street kids have been given boots and uniforms and enrolled in a football training program led by professional coaches.
The program is called the Starfish Football Federation and is affiliated with other similarly named youth charity programs all over the world. The project, launched in April with a pilot group in Kandal province, has been met with enthusiasm and support. Today there are 10 teams in three provinces: Kandal, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
"We provide coaches to train children who are extremely poor or have been orphaned. Many have never had the pleasure of playing football matches and none have had the game taught to them by a real coach. Once they learn some skills, they participate in competitive matches," said foundation coordinator May Tola, who is a longtime CFF official and tireless promoter of football in Cambodia.
"We send coaches to orphanage centers and other areas where there are sites for football training. Because we have few coaches, we've divided children in two groups for training -- one group is under 14 years old and the other is under 16 years old. We've already bought shoes and uniforms, and now we just need to put the number on the back. We will provide them every time there is a match."
It all started with a chance encounter between the FCC operations director and the coach of Cambodia's national football team.
"Anthony Alderson approached me and introduced himself," said Australian Scott O'Donell, the coach of Cambodia's national team and head of the CFF's football development initiative. "He told me a little bit about the Starfish program and asked me who I thought could come in and make it work. I said 'Tola' and it went from there."
So far this year, the CFF coaches, including O'Donell, have spent their free time providing workshops and training sessions in preparation for upcoming tournaments and league play. According to Tola, the project's long-term goal is to have the Starfish clubs recognized by the CFF and contribute to grassroots football development for the betterment of Cambodian football.
"We looked at the situation: they're all orphans or have had hard lives," said O'Donell. "So instead of paying to hire coaches, they can use ours."
Alderson says that the benefits of learning football will be much appreciated by the young players.
"These are children who have lived their whole lives as orphans or street kids, and now suddenly their learning football," said Alderson. "Hopefully, they'll see that it takes discipline and take that approach to school and beyond."
The Starfish team has already established budgets and bank accounts, and tapped several high-profile sponsors eager to enhance the program. A 10-team tournament is planned for later this year.
"This is just a great program. It gives these disadvantaged kids a chance to play and receive some real coaching," said O'Donell. "That's what's been missing in youth football here: quality coaching of the fundamentals at a young age. It makes learning the game so much easier."