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Home » From ‘Hell on Earth’ to Europe, a Young Cambodian’s Unlikely Journey Via Gaelic Football

From ‘Hell on Earth’ to Europe, a Young Cambodian’s Unlikely Journey Via Gaelic Football

by Ulani Louangrath
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PHNOM PENH – Born in an area labelled by some as “hell on earth”, Touch Phanouch, who grew up near Stung Meanchey – an infamous landfill in Phnom Penh – never imagined he would see the rest of the world outside of Cambodia.

But in July, the 22-year-old will set foot in Europe for the first time. And it will be because of a sport that originated around the 13th century on an island in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Phanouch is a forward at Gaelic football outfit Cairde Khmer GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) Club, set up by Padraig Campbell in October 2017. From six Irish expatriates, the club have since expanded to having 50 locals who play the sport each week.

Gaelic football is one of the most popular sports in Ireland. Mixing elements of football, rugby and Australian Rules football, it is played with two 15-a-side teams. Scoring is via kicking or punching the ball into your opponents’ net (worth three points) or between the posts and above the crossbar (one point).

Phanouch’s childhood was less playful. The Stung Meanchey landfill is one of the world’s most infamous rubbish dumps. A report by Britain newspaper The Guardian noted that thousands of waste pickers – people who gather, sort, re-use and sell the things others throw away – toiled on the 40.4ha mound. They would also fashion homes from rubbish and sometimes even have to eat it, for survival.

Phanouch’s parents did their best to keep their son and daughter away from it. At seven, he was sent to a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) – A New Day Cambodia – so that he could get proper access to education.

“It was not a good place. Imagine being surrounded by scavengers and drugs,” he said. “That was what most people there could see. It was hard to imagine beyond that, but my parents wanted better for me. They said they do not want me to be a scavenger.”

He recently started working in business development at a sports resort in Thailand and returns to Phnom Penh during his free time to visit family and for Gaelic football training. He credits the NGO for “who I am today” but added that Gaelic football helped him “discover the world”.

While at the NGO for 10 years, Phanouch was first introduced to Australian Rules football by his teacher. Through the Aussie Rules football community, he discovered Gaelic football.

“I love soccer but Gaelic football is more complex because there is a mix of rules. There is just so much joy when we play the sport. Since I started, I read more and more about the history of the game and it just feels good to be continuing the sport in my own country even when we are so far away from Ireland,” said Phanouch, who watches Gaelic football highlights on YouTube.

With Cairde Khmer, he has been to Kuala Lumpur for the 2022 Asian Gaelic Games as well as Thailand and Vietnam. In July, he hopes to attend the GAA World Games in Derry, Northern Ireland.

The club are raising funds for the trip, with 26 Cambodians set to represent the club against teams from Europe, Australia, South Africa and the United States. Through supporters and sponsors – boosted by media coverage in Ireland – they have already raised €70,000 (S$101,800) but need another €10,000.

During their weekly training sessions at the Boeung Trabek High School, up to 50 players will show up, mostly Cambodians.

Club chairman Ronan Sheehan, who teaches English and has lived in Phnom Penh for the past eight years, said: “Most of our players come from the NGOs. So it gives it an extra special meaning.”

Sheehan, who hails from Kanturk in the Republic of Ireland, added: “I was surprised the Cambodians took to something they would consider wacky. But you can see they just enjoy sports here. Maybe one of the reasons why it is such a hit is that it has encouraged young Cambodian women to play sports.

“Perhaps the society here does not allow women to express themselves too much. The women I have at the club, they can be a bit shy. But once they have the ball and the field, they come alive. It’s such a joy to watch.”

Phanouch’s own excitement is contagious.

He remembers seeing the Irish flag in a picture book while at the NGO and knows the first thing he will do when he gets to Derry. “Take a photo of myself outside, showing I am in (Northern) Ireland,” he said.

Source : The Straits Times

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