Hout Koemhong, 22, is captain of Cambodia’s women’s national team
She and her five siblings grew up in an orphanage
Koemhong flourished at SALT Academy, a FIFA-supported NGO
The women's football team of Bryant and Stratton College may not be well known in USA. However, in Cambodia captain Hout Koemhong, they boast a notable player with an amazing story.
The 22-year-old midfielder joined the team two years ago as one of the college’s new recruits, and is working towards an associate degree, majoring in network technology.
Koemhong is now living a life that would be the envy of many other girls her age back home. A promising footballer enjoying an overseas college education, her future seems certain to be filled with opportunities.
This, however, was a situation no-one could have envisaged back in 2008, when Hout and her five siblings lived in an orphanage at Battambang, a city 300 km northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The reason for the transformation in her fortunes between then and now, says Koemhong, is football.
"My parents divorced when I was two months old and my mom took us to the local orphanage," said Koemhong, who is taking online classes at a friend’s home at Marcellus, New York during the COVID-19 outbreak. "I don't remember much about the days before playing football."
SALT Academy, a FIFA-supported NGO, then started a project in Cambodia aimed at reaching out to the local youngsters and improving their lives through the beautiful game. They organised boys' and girls' teams from the orphanage and little Koemhong would spend the entire day watching them train and play. One day, Sam Schweingruber, coach and CEO of SALT Academy, asked her to join the girls' team.
"When Sam came up to me asking me if I wanted to join them, I said no,” Koemhong recalled. "Because I was very shy. But after I joined them, I had so much fun running around, chasing the ball and kicking it hard.
"I had so much fun running around just following the ball, even though sometimes I kicked the air instead of the ball or an opponent's legs. I swear it was enjoyable, you didn't care about bruises because we all just wanted to win."
Koemhong was obsessed. Quiet and reserved off the pitch, she emerged as a different character on the field, playing hard and competing like crazy. She discovered joy and fun she had never experienced before.
"In some ways, life actually became harder after I played football," she continued. "My sisters and brothers didn't like me to play. I was the youngest of the siblings and they beat me for playing [football]. They gave me more housework. They wanted me to stop playing.
“But I couldn't quit. I had such fun whenever I touched the ball. I focused on my play as if nothing could hurt me."
Koemhong’s progress with SALT Academy’s Mighty Girls team certainly impressed Schweingruber. "Koemhong was the youngest on the team but she was amazing," he told FIFA.com. "She was brave and was able to kick the ball further than the others. When we started playing games, she often scored from distance.”
Koemhong spent six years with Mighty Girls. SALT Academy took care of her and her team-mates, covering the expense of their accommodation, school tuition and training. It was during that period that her transformation took hold.
"To be honest, I grew up with Mighty Girls. To me, all the girls were smart, strong, beautiful and we were all working hard. Together we went to school and we encouraged each other in training. We were just like a family.
"Besides my progress in football, I learned how to be a leader, a coach and even a referee. We learned to speak English. And on weekends and during holidays, we went to villages to teach children how to play football. We shared with the girls there the awareness that they have the right to do what they want to do.
"In SALT Academy, I learned the value of life. I worked hard and became the person I am today. And I am so grateful."
In 2017, Koemhong left for the capital city to join Phnom Penh Crown SC, playing for the girls' team while coaching their U-14 boys.
When the first Cambodia women's national team was formed, she was among the first players picked to represent that history-making side - and installed as its captain. And it didn't take her long to showcase her abilities. In the country's first women’s international ‘A’ match against Timor-Leste on 30 June 2018, she scored six times and provided three assists as they won 12-0.
Now an established figure in the national team, Koemhong is seen as an icon in Cambodian women’s football, with her story inspiring youngsters across the country. Her aim is to raise the level of the game in her home nation while encouraging young girls to be independent and realise their dreams.
"The women's game in Cambodia is not as well developed compared to other Asian countries," she said. "In local culture, girls are expected to stay at home, take care of housework and get married at a young age. So I really want to help and contribute to taking our game to a higher level.
“I went through a lot of difficulties when I was young but I kept working hard and things are getting better,” she said. “I dreamed of joining the national team and now I am the captain. So I want to pass the message to other girls: don’t give up.”