The park east of the Independence Monument, where the massive statue of King Norodom Sihanouk is situated, is a place for a wide range of physical activities: jogging, badminton, shuttlecock kicking and so on. Playing football in the small park sandwiched between two usually crowded roads, however, may sound impossible, but many are actually doing it almost every day. In fact, most of the players rely on the park’s atmosphere and street football to escape from stress and the harsh realities of their lives, Taing Rinith writes.
By 5:30pm on a Friday, just like other usual evenings, the park located right in the heart of Phnom Penh, also known as the Hun Sen Park, is already filled with people exercising, knowing that good health and physical fitness do not come from sitting on a couch in front of the TV while eating potato chips.
In the park, an oasis for the busy residents of the crowded capital, joggers are dogtrotting while listening to music on their headphones while many other fitness enthusiasts are playing badminton or kicking shuttlecocks. But the young men playing street football seem to gain the most attention.
The park is only big enough for two games of football. In one game, there are ten players, most of whom are adult in their mid-20s or early 30s. Four players on each side are trying to shoot the ball past each other’s goalkeepers to score. Their “goal” is simply the gap between two posts, made from plastic pipes cemented in empty food cans. There is no referee to supervise the match.
Cha Pon, one of the players, is known to be the best in this game. The 33-year-old owner of a BBQ eatery comes here to play the ball almost every evening to relieve himself from stress.
“My few friends and I have been playing here for almost two years now,” Pon says during a break after the ‘first half’. “We just come here with the ball and the post and more people join us.”
“We started playing here not because we cannot pay for a pitch but because the park gives us good mood. Having people watching us is also exciting.”
Cha Pon and the other players in his group are always careful so that their ball does not break cars parked nearby or cause a road accident. They are only playing to exercise and to get rid of the stress from their work or sometimes for a small bet, like juice or beer or snack, because they are too old to become professional football players.
Things are different in another game, in which all players are boys under 16. All 15 of them are kmeng wat (the pagoda children), who live in the pagoda, relying on the food given by the monks.
They are playing with a small rattan ball, while their goalposts are only their shoes. Since two players’ shoes are used as goalposts, they agree that the rest have to be barefoot too during the game. Whenever a player in any side scores a goal, the whole team yells happily while the scorer sometimes takes off his shirt and wave it, like Ronaldo when he helped his Brazilian team win the World Cup in 2002.
They are not playing to get fit or to win the bet, but for fun and to escape their hard life even for an hour. Nine-year-old An Nith, for example, turns to football when he misses his parents.
“Two years ago, my parents got divorced, and my mother went back to her hometown and my father went to work in Thailand, leaving me with the monks at the pagoda,” Nith says, almost breaking into tears.
“We are not allowed to play at the pagoda, so we come here to play. Each of us contributes 200 or 300 riels to buy the ball.”
Cheng Serey, 12, another kmeng wat and street footballer, was able to go to school for only two years because his family is too poor. Nevertheless, he says he wants to become a professional footballer in the future.
“I watch football on TV and I learned that they are making so much money, millions of dollars!” Serey says. “At least I want to play well and be respected like my idol Chan Vattanaka (a famous Cambodian footballer currently playing as a forward for PKNS in the Ligar Super.”