How 'the beautiful game' united students from Singapore and Cambodia
Head of Primary School Activities
A newly renovated sports facility on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was the setting for Indochina Starfish Foundation’s (ISF) latest football tournament, where students from UWCSEA East were invited as guests. Over 400 children, from 7 to 13 years of age, played with passion and joy, completely immersed in the country’s most popular sport. From watching the smiling, laughing and pure enjoyment on show from the sidelines, it would be easy to forget that ISF have only been running their football programme for less than a decade and that most of the children involved are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in Cambodia.
The tournament is just one of a number of football initiatives set up by ISF in collaboration with their national body’s football federation. Before the project began, many children spent their free time supporting families by looking after siblings or working and most had never had the opportunity to take part in organised sport; in fact, many had never known what it is like to simply have a space to play.
The project started in 2006 with only 50 children, but 10 years later, close to 3500 boys and girls are now involved. Children who are deaf or have impaired hearing and those with intellectual and physical disabilities, who are often stigmatised and regularly excluded in their communities, are all fully included.
Our UWCSEA students had the chance to visit two ISF schools prior to the tournament and to meet the children they would be forming a team with. Minutes after entering the gates of the first school, the sight of a football in the open courtyard sparked the perfect opportunity for smiles to be exchanged and brief introductions to be made before a kickabout followed. The fact neither set of children knew the other's language was irrelevant; the universal language of football took control.
Later that day, our students also had the opportunity to visit where some of the local children live; one site consisted of tiny shacks built above a wasteland of plastic bottles. Another set of homes were a formation of either concrete walls with corrugated metal roofs or tiny wooden cubicles covered in plastic sheeting, built in a cemetery, sacred land in Cambodia; but with nowhere else to go, this is where many call home. It was a stark contrast to our students' lives back in Singapore.
At the tournament the following day, our eight UWCSEA students split into two groups of four and combined with children from ISF to form two mixed UWCSEA/ISF international teams. Despite the contrast in backgrounds, the common language of football ensured the students instantly reconnected from the previous day and as the festival progressed, the bond between students became stronger. Football has the power to cross divides and break down social barriers like no other form of entertainment. It can bring together people from different backgrounds, classes, ages and countries and provide a means to focus on ability and promote friendships. It was amazing to watch how the beautiful game really can unite.
ISF’s football programme is not only bringing together players on and off the pitch, it is helping to change their lives, their communities and their futures, and UWCSEA are proud to be able to support their work. I am looking forward to continuing to support ISF and taking another group of students to Phnom Penh in 2017. You can find out more about ISF and how to support their projects in Cambodia here.
By Ian Deeth
Head of Primary School Activities
Thank you to Melanie Douglas for contributing some of the photos.