There’s a phrase in Cork, Ireland, for Gaelic football teams (GAA), says Cairde Khmer Chairperson, Ronan Sheehan. “They are like mushrooms. They sprout up overnight. It can be that a team is going f***ing nowhere and overnight they become champions. That was kind of like this club.” Sheehan beams with pride as he explains how Phnom Penh’s very own local Gaelic football team went from a few expats playing the classic Irish game, to two full Cambodian teams being invited to the sport’s highest level tournament in Ireland. “It was just a mushroom and f***ing sprouted overnight.”
Gaelic football found its way to Cambodia just a short time ago, but the country’s players have swiftly established themselves as some of the best in the region.
The Cairde Khmer GAA club has now competed in the Asian Gaelic Games for over 5 years. Players have travelled throughout Asia to take part in regional tournaments. 2022 saw squads consisting mainly of Cambodian nationals reach both the men’s and women’s finals, beating teams predominately made up of Irish diaspora. Thanks to this incredible, unexpected achievement, the club has now been invited to represent all of Asia at the World Gaelic Games in Ireland – and this Saturday 18th March, the Cairde Khmer GAA club will put on an all-day St. Patrick’s Day Festival to help raise some of the EUR 70,000 needed to get to the all-Cambodian men and women’s teams to Ireland this July for the World Gaelic Games.
That both the men’s and women’s teams are made up of all Cambodian players is hugely significant. “Initially it was just expats,” says Sheehan (who says he is skeptical of the term). The club started to attract more Khmer players to take part in training, but the cost of competing abroad in regional games, for example in Vietnam and Malaysia, meant a lot of these new recruits couldn’t take up the opportunity. Many of the Khmer players in the team are dealing with poverty or other difficult situations. “You start getting their stories,” says Sheehan. “A lot of our players come from really challenging backgrounds.”
This didn’t sit right with Caride Khmer. It felt wrong to have to leave some members of the team behind when competing overseas, especially as the team had started to become a close-knit family. Sheehan explains that community is what GAA is built on back in Ireland and that same sense of community was developing here, but with an 85% Cambodian team. Cairde Khmer started fundraising and finding ways for the whole team to be involved in the international tournaments – and since then, the club has turned into a powerhouse in Asia.
As the team went from strength to strength, winning international award after award, the club’s founders also realised they needed to make sure the community would be here to stay. This would only to be achievable if the team became more of a Cambodian institution, since many overseas workers in the Kingdom come and go after a couple of years. “We thought, we have a really nice thing here and if we want this to stay then maybe foreigners aren’t the way to go. So we started targeting Khmers after that,” says Sheehan.
Today, the team thrives on engaging Khmer people from low-income backgrounds and offering a rare opportunity to women to become an integral part of organised sports in Cambodia.
Sreypov Vat, a yoga teacher who grew up in a Phnom Penh orphanage, explains that she joined the club, in part, because she loves football but could not find a women’s team in Phnom Penh. Growing up, she knew that she didn’t want to fit into the box of what a little girl was supposed to do.
“I didn’t like playing with girls, because it was too gentle,” the now Cairde Khmer team captain explains. “My brother didn’t like me playing sports while growing up in the orphanage. But I always found a way to play. I would wait for him to go and study and then I could get the chance to play with the girls and with the boys before he came back.”
For Sreypov, sports is in her blood and she is looking to break stereotypes in Cambodia.
“People do not expect girls to be good at football. In Cambodia it’s not seen as something we should do. We should be doing something more girly.”
Sreypov Vat being badass
Sreypov and the rest of her teammates are certainly contradicting this view – and Sheehan is thrilled with what the team he helped build is able to achieve.
“Give a man a chance and you will be surprised by what he can do,” he says. “A lot of these young men and women have never had a fucking chance at anything. Now they are getting a chance at something. And fuck, look at them take it…..it’s beautiful to watch.”
Let’s get the All-Cambodian Cairde Khmer Team to Ireland Head over to CRAFT on Saturday at 3pm to help raise money for this amazing cause. There will be food, a raffle and an incredible day of live music from: Soselo Summer, Skin and String, Greg Beshers and The Goldilocks Zone. The team needs EUR 70,000 for flights, visas, kit, training, travel, accommodation, jerseys and food, so dig deep. You can also donate straight to their GO FUND ME here.