Whether in a real football pitch or in mere empty streets, Cambodia has an abundance of talented young football players. But not everyone gets the chance to be recognised and play for established local clubs, especially if they’re poor. This drove Paraic Grogran to establish the Happy Football Cambodia Australia and offer underprivileged kids an opportunity to train professionally and compete internationally. Since its founding more than decade ago, HFCA has already taken dozens of players to various nations to compete in the Homeless World Cup. Paraic Grogan shares the story of HFCA with Eileen McCormick.
Good Times2: How and why did you create HFCA?
Grogan: We were formed in November 2005. I was working for another charity that time, and I noticed many children were playing on the streets, not on actual pitch. At that time, the cost to rent a pitch for an hour was $10. That’s equivalent to $50 in 2005. We started to approach schools and asked if we can use their fields. We also looked for local partners, the Cambodian River Kids being our first. When we started, we just really wanted to offer free football programme for youths who had limited resources. But as the programme grew, we also joined the Homeless World Cup.
Good Times2: What is the Homeless World Cup?
Grogan: The Homeless World Cup is an annual, world-class, international football tournament organised and delivered by the Homeless World Cup Foundation. Every year, more than 50 teams of men and women who are homeless get the chance to represent their country during the week-long competition. For our team, we joined the international competition in 2006. We competed in Melbourne, Mexico, Sweden and other countries.
Good Times2: How do you select players?
Grogan: We work with partner organisations, and those organisations help us pick the best players. Any youth who’s interested in football can qualify. We don’t really have skill requirements but they must be registered with our partner organisations. They must also show positive attitude and willingness to learn. We choose players who can best represent the country in the international football pitch.
Good Times2: How does the tournament work?
Grogan: For the first stage after the draw, each team plays against all other teams in the group. Cambodia currently belongs to Group E. The lowest group is F. On the second stage of the match, each team plays in a round-robin format. Teams that finish first or second in their group advance to the Homeless World Cup. Those who finish third and fourth will have to compete for another trophy. The last stage – quarterfinals, semifinals and finals – will have each team play until the final day of the competition. For men’s, there are 48 countries competing; each team is guaranteed 13 games.
Good Times2: How did you perform in the past tournaments?
Grogan: We made it to the finals in Milan in 2009 but we lost to Scotland. We, however, beat Sweden and got a trophy for it. The worst loss we ever had was with Brazil. They reached double digits and we remained at 0. But losses like that are rare in the Homeless World Cup. We just think that something can be gained from losing. We try to focus on our local programme here, on improving our local players. Also, we just enjoy the experience of representing Cambodia abroad. We teach our players on roaming around the host city and approaching other teams off the pitch. Winning and losing is just half the element of the tournament. It’s really a test of character. So, we let our players understand sportsmanship, and just be proud that we were able to play against great teams such as Brazil. That’s something to be proud of, too.
Good Times2: What’s the best experience your team had so far?
Grogan: We played against the US in 2012. We had a friendly competition with them a year before that and they beat us. So during the game, we were quite fired up to give it our best. To add to the intensity of wanting to win the rematch, the team was put on the main pitch with more than 5,000 people watching. We were in Mexico City. Cambodia seems like in another part of the world and people didn’t really know about us so the likelihood of having supporters wasn’t expected. But this time, however, we had the Mexican crowd rallying behind us as we won 5-4. The win was great, but having a whole stadium on our side really changed the players’ lives.
Good Times2: Does your programme also include female players?
Grogan: Yes, we have. But due to our resources, we first had to let them play with the younger boys. But as of May last year, we gained access to new fields and the female players now have their own programme. We hope that by 2019, we can have them join the female category of the Homeless World Cup. We have been working really hard to give girls equal access to sports.
Good Times2: What’s the biggest challenge of your programme?
Grogan: Our biggest issue so far is with passport and visa processing. More than the costs, the processing time and the documents needed affect us. Most of our players have lost the documents that are needed for their passport processing and their families don’t have the means to attain new ones. For visas, players have to complete several forms. At the French Embassy, for example, we had to fill out 15 to 20 forms. And then wait for three months for the approval. And then when we enter a foreign country and immigration sees me with so many citizens from another country, it creates lots of delays and questions. It’s really an eye-opener for me that I am privileged enough to be traveling using an Australian passport.
For funding, we don’t have a one-stop-shop source and things like grants don’t really apply to what we’re doing. So, we cast a wide net relying on crowd source funding and private businesses around the world. Some local businesses are also helping our team for the past several years. Through their help, other organisations are also now learning about us.
Good Times2: How have the players been since they started training under the programme?
Grogan: The players come back to the country as transformed individuals. We can see huge changes in them compared to how they were when they first joined us. One of our players really had a big shift in his life. He was left at a dumpster at the age of five and was rescued when he was 10. After being part of the organisation as player, he is now a staff coordinator. In our programme, over-aged players are pulled out and instead become staff. We have 10 coaches, nine of them are our former players. We also have one player who got through the football federation and got his license. He is now the coach of the Ministry of Environment football team. Two of our players have joined the Cambodian Premier League. For me, that’s what the programme is all about – giving drive and direction to people who were offered with little opportunity.
Good Times2: Will the programme continue to get more underprivileged players?
Grogan: We would like to think that we will continue going forward. In fact, Scotland and Cambodia have signed a memorandum of understanding that would last for the next three and a half years. This will help flourish football in Cambodia and our programme as well.
Good Times2: Will Cambodia be hosting the international tournament soon?
Grogan: If Cambodia puts a bid for hosting, it’s not impossible that the Homeless World Cup will be held here in the country which prides Angkor Wat. We’re hosting SEA Games so things are really shifting now for the Kingdom.