Cambodian League teams bring in foreign players every year to bolster their lineups. Foreign recruits have come Japan, Brazil, Cameroon, Iran, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, United States, Colombia, Afghanistan, North Korea, South Korea and many other countries.
One notable foreign recruit this year is Ata Inia, the first professional football player from Tonga. An island nation in the South Pacific, Tonga is more well-known for rugby.
Inia, who was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia, joined the Siem Reap-based Angkor Tiger football club after a stint with Melbourne Knights FC in the National Premier Leagues (NPL).
In this Q and A with Khmer Times Deputy Sports Editor Jose Rodriguez T. Senase, the Tongan midfielder talks about his background, his experience playing football in Australia, decision to come to Cambodia, the areas where he can help his new team, readiness and expectations for the upcoming season of the Cambodian League and his plans for the future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KT: You have been described as Tonga’s first professional football player. Tonga, as far as I know, is a rugby-crazy country. Who introduced you to football?
Ata Inia: My mum played rugby growing up. My Tongan family actually come from a boxing and kick boxing background. So, a lot of my early years were spent kickboxing and playing touch rugby. One of my cousins (Tim) was the one who introduced me to football. He used to show me videos of Premier League games featuring Ronaldo and Torres. I fell in love with the sport and I never looked back from there. Growing up and going to school in a multi-cultural area, where everyone plays soccer, also helped develop my interest and love for the sport.
KT: Describe yourself as a football player.
Ata Inia: As a footballer I would describe myself as a fast and direct winger. I like to run straight at defences, I love to dribble, take on players, and create a lot of goal-scoring opportunities
KT: You have been playing in the Australian football leagues, including a stint with the Melbourne Knights in the NPL. How did you end up playing in Cambodia?
Ata Inia: I think it would take a long time for me to reach the A-League from the National Premier Leagues. Possibly, I have to wait until my mid-20s. That is why I decided to move to Southeast Asia with hopes of competing for an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) position. It also gave me the opportunity to work under coaches from whom I could learn a lot. I have seen that in coach Oriol (Mohedano Segura) last December when I tried out for Angkor Tiger. I feel I am in a good position to learn and grow.
KT: Did you find it hard to adjust to a new country, weather and teammates?
Ata Inia: Playing in Cambodia and in another country is really good for me. I am free to focus on football, even though it’s very hard for me to be away from family. I come from a very rough, gang- populated area. Many of my school friends are now in jail or are on their way down that path. I’m lucky to be able to get away from all of those distractions. It was one of the reasons I moved here. It was a great opportunity and a way out for me. It was hard for me at first because I’ve never lived alone before. At home I lived with a lot of family. But my teammates, coaches and management of Angkor Tiger welcomed me and made me comfortable. I am lucky to have people like them with me. They made my life away from home much easier.
KT: What can you say about Cambodia and the Khmer people?
Ata Inia: The Cambodian people are so easy to get along with. They are always laughing and smiling and they always see the positive in bad situations. They are always willing to lend a helping hand to everyone in need. I have a lot of love for my Cambodian teammates. They’ve helped me a lot.
KT: After a promising start, Angkor Tiger FC did not make it to the top five last season. How can you help the team improve its standing in the Cambodian League?
Ata Inia: I think I can help Tiger a lot going forward. I think my speed and my dribbling when linking with other quality players around me will be very hard for other MCL teams to stop. I believe the plan that coach Oriol has for us will help Tiger to be a much more dominant and consistent team this year. I think if we can implement exactly what our coaches want from us consistently, I see no reason why we can’t win the league or at least compete for a top three spot.
KT: Do you intend to stay and play longer in Cambodia?
Ata Inia: Yes, I plan to stay longer in Cambodia. I really want to win a trophy here and play in AFC football. That’s my main focus right now. But in the long run, I would really love to play in Europe one day.