Raising spirits in Cambodia
© FIFA.com

In a land where almost two million people died through war and hunger, Gne Kom' Sorth's story is unexceptional. On the day she was born her father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The young girl grew up in a terrifying environment involving dances with death through minefields as she fled between villages. But now, thirty years on, Gne Kom is fulfilling the vow made to the dad she never knew by helping to bring joy to the very fields that witnessed so much horror during Cambodia's long civil war.

This year she became one of just two Cambodian women to pass the FIFA-approved D-license football coaching badge. Among the six to be recruited by the organisation Spirit of Soccer, a Football for Hope Implementing Partner and streetfootballworld network member, she is now imparting her knowledge of football and of the dangers posed by landmines to a new generation of children born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge but still being killed and maimed in high numbers.

"I feel privileged," says Gne Kom, now wife and mother. "If I can save a child's life by explaining the dangers of touching and playing with the mines then my life's meaning is clear. I am so very proud."

Lee Heang's tale is rather different. A talented and enthusiastic footballer playing at provincial level, the 23-year old was approached by Scotty Lee - Spirit of Soccer founder and executive director - after a match about a year ago. "He asked me if I liked children and five minutes later I was being signed up to coach football in some places I'd never even thought of going before," said the Wat Leap native.

Within a few months, Lee Heang, armed with the D-license coaching badge, was venturing far off the beaten track and visiting schools in the area along the Thai border where 65 per cent of the country's landmines are located as well as many ex-Khmer Rouge fighters still in hiding.

"When I asked the children there which of them had been affected by mines, I expected the odd one or two to raise their hands but when I saw almost all of them up it suddenly struck me how very important my work was," said Lee who has now taught more than 10,000 children in the lands to Cambodia's northwest. "Knowing that my work is saving children's lives makes me the happiest man."

Phorn So 'Pha, the second woman qualified to coach in Cambodia, also became involved through a love of football. After applying to join the Spirit of Soccer group through the Ministry of Education, the 33-year-old physical education teacher wants to stay in the game following her work in mine education.

"I cannot live in a country where children cannot play, or the innocent lose parts of their body just because they want to have fun," says the former physical education teacher who now wants to become a referee. "Football is the best way to teach kids."

Pain and sadness is never too far away in this northern part of Cambodia and Sokhorn Soun, Spirit of Soccer's project manager, is another to have been touched by it. The 47-year-old's wife lost her whole family during the civil war. "I love her so much. She supports me all the time in the work I'm doing," said Sokhorn, who previously worked at the country's Mines Advisory Group. "I can see the effect the game is having here. My dream is to see our next generation able to play football freely throughout Cambodia."

Mixing a dose of wisdom to the football helping, Gne, Lee Heang, Phorn and Sokhorn are among the first warriors in what will inevitably be a long struggle to rid the Southeast Asian country of the perils of landmines. Currently travelling among the primary schools in the Kosh Krolor, Banan and Moung Russey districts of the Battambang province, they teach around 240 children each day during their sessions.

From 23-26 September, there were a couple of slightly taller individuals making up the coaching classes. FIFA's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility Federico Addiechi along with Jurgen Griesbeck, Managing Director of streetfootballworld - FIFA's strategic ally in the Football for Hope Movement, visited the Spirit of Soccer project centred in Battambang, a four-hour drive north of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.

Spirit of Soccer uses the medium of football coaching clinics to educate children on the threats posed by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in post-conflict regions of the world. Following its successful engagement in Bosnia for close to a decade, Spirit of Soccer shifted its focus to Cambodia one year ago. The organisation has been a member of the streetfootballworld network since 2006 and was among the 27 organisations recently supported in the framework of the Football for Hope Movement, as part of FIFA and streetfootballworld's commitment to Development through Football.