On 14 March, the organisation Spirit of Soccer staged a unique competition in Cambodia: the Mine Risk Education Soccer tournament.
Seventeen teams, including four U-14 sides from districts directly affected by mines, converged as Spirit of Soccer, a Football for Hope Implementing Partner and streetfootballworld Network Member, attempted to convey a potentially life-saving message through football.
Spirit of Soccer was set up in 2006 in the province of Battambang in northern Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four-to-six million mines and unexploded ordinances in Cambodia and, according to estimates, at the present rate it would take 100 years to clear them all.
Making matters worse, during the country's near-three-decade long war the mines were strategically placed for maximum human damage. More than 40,000 Cambodians are missing a body part with 40 per cent of victims being young boys.
The message, therefore, was vital, and in his opening address, Mr. Yenu, the Deputy Governor of Battambang addressed the importance of sport in mine risk education and praised the efforts of Spirit of Soccer After that, it was down to the highlight of the event - the football - which the youngsters played with skill, passion and energy that belied the brutal March heat.
*'Healthy and strong' * In the U-14 boys' category, the 12 teams were divided into four pools which left each team with just two 45-minute games before the semi-finals. The sides from Battambang playing in the SALT league generally proved too strong for the visiting teams from the other districts, although the last four were remarkably well matched, with KCS, Crossroads, Catholics and ASPECA all fought out goalless draws.
Penalty shootouts were therefore required and though both went into sudden death, KCS and Catholics advanced to the final. The latter side seemed destined to win that concluding match 1-0 after they grabbed an early lead but only with a few minutes left on the clock KCS's efforts paid off with a great shot from 25 yards finding its way into the net. The KSC keeper then went on to become the hero of an engrossing finale, saving three penalties in a 4-3 shootout win.
Sey Chunthuen, a defender in the victorious KCS team, enthused afterwards about the tournament and its message, expressing the hope that more Cambodian children can play the game in a safe environment and perhaps join the competition next time.
In the girls' category, a tight group stage featuring just five goals was again followed by two penalty shootouts to decide the finalists, with New Hope Children's Home and Compassion Church winning out. Remarkably, the final too ended in a goalless stalemate and the New Hope team emerged triumphant from the shoot-out, claiming a 2-0 victory.
Despite a lack of goals, the fans present were clearly impressed by the players' efforts, and the girls themselves loved every minute. One of those involved, 16-year-old Kluen Tie, had only been playing football for two months and while she was nervous about competing in front of so many people, she thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt that she had benefited from the Mine Risk Education message.
She said: "I hope that next year even more teams from the province can play with us and that everybody will be healthy and strong and nobody will get hurt by a mine."
*Girl's category: * 1. New Hope Children's Home
2. Compassion Church
3. Catholics Student Center
*Boys category: * 1. KCS (Khmer Community Service)
2. Catholics Student Center
3. ASPECA Orphanage
*Fair Play Trophy: * 1. Rotanak Mondul School