Over the past six months, 100 teams made up of almost 1,500 boys and girls participated in the AIA-ISF Youth League in Phnom Penh. This youth league, however, is no ordinary youth league. Its young, enthusiastic players comprise some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in Cambodia, and the league’s impact is changing lives.
Opportunities to engage in competitive sport and access safe and secure grounds to play in are limited for most Cambodian children, especially those from economically deprived backgrounds. Typically, girls have less access than boys and access for disabled children is almost non-existent. However, Indochina Starfish Foundation (“ISF”), an NGO working in Phnom Penh, is offering boys and girls from all backgrounds along with players with physical and intellectual disabilities the rare opportunity to play football, to be physically active, to build valuable life skills and to have fun.
ISF has been behind grassroots football since its founding in 2006 and currently works with 3,000 underprivileged Cambodian children through training sessions, tournaments, leagues and festivals. ISF’s commitment to creating inclusive opportunities for young players is guided by the principle that every child has the right to play. At the heart of ISF’s youth league is the belief that sport has the potential to combat many of the social challenges facing young people in Cambodia, such as discrimination, lack of education, unemployment and preventable diseases.
AIA (Cambodia) Life Insurance Plc sponsored ISF’s youth league for the second consecutive year this year in alignment with its commitment to reach disadvantaged children and communities and support employment opportunities and healthier life choices. Together, AIA Cambodia and ISF are using football to impart the positive values of teamwork, discipline and sportsmanship on children’s lives. This is in line with the belief that active participation in sport plays a vital role in helping Cambodians live healthier, longer, better lives.
Attending the league closing ceremony on Sunday, AIA Cambodia’s management Pauline Teoh said: “Having witnessed and, better yet, having enabled ISF’s impactful work of organising one of Cambodia’s largest community football programmes is something everyone at AIA in Cambodia and at Group’s level is particularly proud of. This adds significant value to our unwavering dedication to helping Cambodians from all backgrounds lead a healthier life, starting from a young age.
Aside from improving fitness through building strength, stamina and speed, football players experience a better quality of health due to their improved aerobic and anaerobic capabilities. The youth league promotes health and well-being where it’s needed most, but it is also promoting female inclusion in sport across Cambodia. Since ISF’s programme started, the number of girls’ teams in the league has more than doubled, which indicates a big shift in football’s role for women and society in Cambodia. This year, the AIA-ISF Youth League provided coaching and tournaments to six divisions of girls and boys in under-10, under-14 and under-18 age brackets, including deaf and hearing-impaired players.
In the league’s weekly training sessions, there is a social impact element that focuses on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to address issues such as: gender equality, conflict prevention, health and wellness and other life skills. The coaches act as role models for the players and this is particularly significant when it comes to increasing girls’ participation. “Coming from a society where sport is traditionally considered a pastime or career choice for men only, being coached by women instructors can be a source of inspiration for girls wanting to break into sport,” said coach ISF coach Ranya, speaking at the League’s opening in December 2018.
In 2018, ISF’s inclusive Football Programme won the Asian Football Confederation’s Dream Asia Award and was also shortlisted for the Beyond Sport Global Award 2018 Sport for Health and Wellbeing for using the power of football to forge positive social change in Cambodian society.
This season of the AIA-ISF Youth League closed on Sunday with final matches of all divisions from 9am to 4pm at the ISF Sports Ground, located in Preah Theat Village, Phnom Penh. The closing ceremony was attended by all participating children and their coaches, along with ISF and AIA Cambodia’s management.