Providing weekly coaching and tournaments to 1,455 players around Phnom Penh, the annual league comprises six divisions of girls’ and boys’ teams in the under-10, under-14 and under-18 age ranges. The opportunity to engage in competitive football, and to even access playing fields, is limited for most Cambodian children, especially those who are from an underprivileged background. Typically, girls have less access than boys. Recognising these facts and aligning their commitment towards a healthier Cambodia, ISF and AIA are embarking on their second year of partnership, using football to push for progress and inclusion.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Ms. Sok Ranya, an ISF football coach who trains children and young adults of all abilities every week, described the AIA-ISF Youth League as “crucial to the development of healthy lifestyles and of important soft skills such as teamwork and communication.” In their weekly training sessions, coaches also integrate a social impact element to address issues such as gender equality, conflict prevention, health and wellness plus other life skills. Many coaches act as role models for the players and this is particularly significant when it comes to increasing female participation. “Coming from a society where sport is traditionally considered a pastime or career choice for men only, being coached by female instructors/role models can also be a source of inspiration for girls wanting to break into sport,” said Ms. Ranya.
The weekly training sessions also encourage players to develop life skills that allow them to think more constructively in their everyday lives. 14-year-old student Khan Ratha said that the AIA-ISF Youth League has helped her to develop critical-thinking skills and to challenge gender stereotypes through sport. “When I play football, I feel strong and energetic. I can do whatever the boys can do. Football is for everyone!” she exclaimed, adding that when she finishes school, she dreams of becoming a football coach. She described her training sessions and participation in the league as helping her to define her passions and her goals in life, as well as developing discipline, focus and resilience.
Another player, 15-year-old Chhay Theara, said that the AIA-ISF Youth League is one of the best things he invests his time in and that it motivates him to work hard and form healthy lifestyle habits. After joining the league, Theara noticed improvements in his physical health and fitness as well as improvements in his time-management skills and social skills. 15-year old player Sreyneath meanwhile said that the training and tournaments offer an opportunity to escape negative temptations and focus on living a healthier lifestyle, adding that her dedication to football had helped keep her away from drugs, a problem she sees affecting others in her community.
Realising the many impacts of the league, Mr. Richard Bates, CEO of AIA Cambodia, said: “Last year’s league was a tremendous success, and we are proud to partner with ISF again this year to continue making the positive difference to the lives of its many participants and of their families. Through ISF’s comprehensive football program and the support from our partner Tottenham Hotspur FC, we are certain that the impact of this AIA-ISF Youth League is only going to multiply as it progresses towards, and at the same time materializes, a life that is healthier, longer and better for the children taking part.”
Mr. Anton Blackwood, one of the two Spurs coaches attending the opening ceremony, said he was impressed by the dedication of the coaches and passion of the players: “Through AIA, we are able to provide ISF coaches with some key training. Through the enthusiasm of the children here, we believe that the coaches have been making use of the opportunity the league provides to spread the skills and the love of football. This is the sustainable model that AIA and Spurs want to see, and we are delighted to witness it in this league.”
Earlier this year, ISF’s inclusive football programme won the Asian Football Confederation’s Dream Asia Award and was also shortlisted for the Beyond Sport 2018 Sport for Health and Wellbeing Award for promoting the power of football to forge positive social change in Cambodian society. In his remark, ISF Trustee Leo Brogan said: "The partnership with AIA has helped us get to where we are today: impacting the lives of thousands of children and their families for the better. We thank and applaud AIA as well as Spurs for their committed effort in advancing our cause, and we strongly hope that together, the AIA-ISF Youth League this year will yield an even more impactful result.”