‘I believe we can win’: Underdog Cambodian youth soccer team debuts on world stage – Washington Post

Teenagers Chandavid Pheap, Nareak Chin and Dauna Sovan may not register as famous names yet, but if all goes as planned, the three Cambodians will one day rise to the elite European soccer leagues.

First things first, however. Chin, 14, and Pheap and Sovan, both 13, have a more immediate goal — to lead the first Cambodian team to victory in the Gothia Cup, the world’s largest youth tournament, which features around 1,700 teams from 80 countries.

“I believe we can win,” Sovan said in an email via the team’s coach, Charlie Pomroy.

“I want to make Cambodia proud of us,” Pheap added.

“I can’t wait to play against players from other countries to test my skills,” Chin chimed in.

And it will be a test.

The boys, who hail from the resort town of Siem Reap, will play in the under-15 division of the tournament, which begins Sunday. Their Group 5 opponents will be more experienced teams from Portugal, Sweden and Lebanon, which is daunting enough. But they will also be competing with 11 players to a side for the first time.

“There’s no access [in Siem Reap] to a full-size field …, so every single one of our players has grown up playing small-sided football,” Pomroy said, referring to games that feature just nine players per side. “The jump to 11-by-11 is a big one.”

“Technically, I think they’re ready and they won’t be outdone, but tactically, I’m a tad concerned,” he said.

And while Pomroy likes his underdog team’s self-confidence, in his own mind he’s a bit more realistic.

“My own personal ambition is to go there and compete,” he told The Post on the phone last week.

“Don’t be disheartened by anything,” he continued, “And if we make it through the group, which is a tough one, then I’ll be happy.”

Pomroy, an UEFA-licensed coach from Britain, moved to Cambodia in 2010 after visiting the country while traveling the world the year before. Getting involved in soccer came naturally to him, but it wasn’t until last year that he was able to make the connections necessary to allow his team to compete internationally.

“It’s been a whirlwind journey,” Pomroy said of starting his own coaching program in Siem Reap before helping launch Forza Academy — a nonprofit soccer school funded by Swedish soccer app Forza Football — in 2016.

Pomroy said it was the app’s co-creator Patrik Arnesson who first suggested in February that Pomroy try to bring his team to the Gothia Cup, held in Gothenburg, Sweden.

“It’s been all hands on deck since then,” Pomroy said, calling the logistics he and Arnesson faced in securing passports and visas for the 18-member squad a “paperwork nightmare.”

Luckily, funding the trip proved smoother. To pay for passports, visas, travel and other expenses, Forza Football set up a crowdfunding campaign — and literally put Arnesson’s body on the line. Forza offered gear and perks for some levels of donations, but for $10,000, Arnesson agreed to get a tattoo of the benefactor’s choice.

“It’ll be my first tattoo ever,” Arnesson, 31, said last week, after the campaign surpassed its $30,000 goal thanks to a last-minute, $10,000 donation from a company that for now wants to remain anonymous.

The tattoo has yet to be determined, but Arnesson has no regrets, noting he would sell a section of his skin again because “it was really valuable for the kids.”

With the logistics secured, all 18 players and their four coaches arrived in Gothenburg on Wednesday night. By Thursday, they received their official jerseys and will soon begin mixing with the other teams.

“I feel so happy, very excited,” 13-year-old Sovan said.

Pomroy said he expects that he might have to comfort some of the kids if they don’t do as well as they believe they can, but that’s just part of the job.

“As a coach you have that balancing act to manage expectations,” he said, adding that he’s glad his team is a little more overconfident than scared. That confidence, he said, has translated to dedication to the game.

“They’re not missing training sessions,” he said, adding with a laugh: “Some of them have been a little bit naughty and skipped school to be at training on Saturdays.” (Cambodian school runs six days a week.)

Asked whether the team has any concerns, Pomroy paused to think.

“I think they’re a little bit nervous about not getting to eat rice every day,” he said.

The Gothia Cup runs through July 22. Fans can follow the progress of Forza Academy’s Cambodian team on their Facebook page.


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