I started playing football (soccer for my American friends) from the moment I could walk and kick a football.I grew up playing the game because of my older brother but have continued to play it throughout my life because I fell in love with it.I very quickly found it to be an emotional outlet for me and for the minutes I was on the field, nothing else mattered.Throughout my life it has been a place of safety, a place to let go and forget everything going on in my life and just focus on the game.It might sound strange but I fully believe there was even a moment that God used football to save my life.Football can be a powerful tool, the most powerful thing about it is that it’s universal.You could travel to any country in the world, take out a football and I guarantee you’d soon make new friends and connections.You don’t even have to speak the same language, you can set the ball down and just go.It can reach out and bring together people from all backgrounds, cultures, genders and races.It’s more than just a game.It can be a powerful weapon to use against the devil.The devil wants nothing more than to divide us and destroy connections, football crosses over all those lines and reaches out to bring the most unlikely people together. I believe, without a doubt, that God can and is using football as way to stretch boundaries, break chains and bring hope to millions.It’s not the only way of course, but I don’t think I know of anything else that has wider reach in this world than football does.I could of course be a little biased!
I’ve been in Cambodia for just over a year now, when I first arrived out, I came carrying a dream and a vision to establish a football ministry here.About 4-5 years ago God placed a passion in my heart to fight against human trafficking.About a year later he gave me a vision to set up a sports ministry, a very detailed vision but he failed to mention the where.A vision that overwhelmed me in every way and left me wondering how on earth I could ever do what God had placed in my heart.Over those years God would add some more things to it, one being that I would use football as a tool to fight against trafficking.I had no grid for how, when or where yet.I certainly had given zero thought to moving to Asia, Africa maybe!The year leading up to me moving here God soon started opening up my heart to Cambodia.Our Iris Cambodia directors went to my church and I soon found myself meeting with them and we both had a vision for a sports ministry and everything they envisioned ticked the boxes of the vision God had given me years before.I knew almost immediately that Cambodia was where I was supposed to go and a few months later I landed here!
The football dream came fully alive in July (2018) as we launched our first project in Sihanoukville, a football summer camp.We ran it once a week for 8 weeks for 11-16 year olds.We averaged about 18 boys (and 1 girl) each week, our biggest attendance being 21!We coached them both football skills and life skills such as working together, leadership skills for our older boys, discipline and all about working hard.We had an amazing 8 weeks with them.Every single week they showed up, worked hard, were super enthusiastic and just owned the team!We bought them all football shoes which most (if not all) had never owned a pair before and about halfway through we got them their own team football kits and team name: Iris Eagles F.C.
Why eagles?Eagles represent freedom, strength and courage.Eagles can fly higher than any other bird allowing them to see things from a higher perspective and see the bigger picture.My hope for our team is that it brings them into freedom and clothes them with strength and courage.That we would see things from a heavenly (higher) perspective, be in the moment but also see the long-term future, the bigger picture of all this ministry could be for our kids.
“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint”
– Isaiah 40:31.
I was blown away by the impact that the football team had on the players in such a short time.Leading up to this, we had seen a drop in attendance at our kids centre which correlated with the opening of an internet cafe in the heart of the community where our kids lived.We saw a lot of boys spending hours and hours here, addicted to the gaming and also being introduced to unhealthy and inappropriate sites such as pornography.Some were even skipping school to stay at the cafe.Before each kids centre session, our staff were having to go into cafe and try and encourage our boys to come to the centre.So with the football project we saw an opportunity to help the boys choose a healthier lifestyle choice.When we announced the football camp we had a huge interest and had about 25 youth register (most of them being ones that spent a lot of time at the cafe).One of our terms for being able to come to the camp and be part of the team was that they had to attend the centre at least once a week.We ran our centre on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the football on Fridays.
Come our first week of football, the Tuesday of that week when we went pick the kids up for the centre, every single one of our players that had signed up, stood waiting for the truck.Our staff went into the cafe and not one of our kids was in there.Those that had signed up for the football did not want to risk their place on the camp.It was incredible the immediate impact football had on them and how excited they were to get to be part of this.In the remaining weeks of the football camp, we saw an increase in our numbers at the centre, including boys we had not saw at our centre in a very long time.One of the boys that suddenly showed up after months of not coming to the centre was actually the manager of this internet cafe.His uncle owned the cafe and had put him in charge of it.He is only about 15/16 years old and was no longer in school so he could work at the cafe.He showed up to the centre wanting to come to the football camp.Most weeks after that he was coming to both the centre and to football.He normally held the stature of being tough and hard, but he was coming along to both projects with huge smiles on his face and you could see how the tough exterior was breaking off and joy was breaking through.In all of our boys we noticed some changes in them, a lightness about them as they used this space to just have fun and let loose.
But, here is my most favourite story of all.One that both wrecked my heart and filled it with pure love and joy.On our very last week of camp we did a tournament day with the team and surprised them with a treat afterwards to a local Italian restaurant for pizza and awards!There is so much I could say about the time at the pizza place, it was just amazing in so many ways.For most, this was a first time experience not only at a nice restaurant but also in eating pizza.We just had so much fun with the team here.As we were eating I noticed an older lady approach one of the tables begging for money from the kids. Not unusual for Cambodia. One boy, without hesitation, quietly and quickly pulled out the little money he had and gave it to this lady. The lady immediately went ‘akun, akun’ (thank-you). The moment came and went in the blink of a second and I only just caught it. I almost immediately started crying.
This boy had little to nothing but he saw someone in greater need and gave all that he had. I leaned over to Sovy (one of our Khmer staff) and told him what happened and he said because he had gotten to eat all the pizza he felt he had more than enough which is why he was so quick to give to this lady. My heart just about combusted in my chest. I don’t think I’ve witnessed anyone give as much as this young boy gave and it came out of the overflow of our team pouring love into our kids. The kindness, the gentleness, the generosity of his small action just wrecked me in every way. I’m so thankful that God allowed me to witness that short beautiful moment. It’s one I won’t forget. That day, is one I won’t forget, it was just perfect. I’m so so proud of our team!
The Long-Term Vision
All of this only happened in the space of 8 weeks.God just blew away every expectation I had in these first 8 weeks.This is only the beginning and I’m so excited to what God will do in weeks, months and years to come!We are planning out our next camp here in Sihanoukville and hope to have it up and running again in a few weeks.We hope to keep the same core of players who attended previously and maybe try and open up some spaces for new kids (we have a lot who want to come).In the next phase we want to be more intentional in using this time to also disciple and mentor the team and use it as an opportunity to share more of Jesus in a way that is relevant to the older kids in the community.Beyond that, we would love to start up a camp for younger kids.We would love to play against other teams, travel with the team to other towns and cities.Host tournaments to invite other NGOs to bring their teams to and establish connections with similar organisations in the area.We are dreaming up residential weekends for our team in Sihanoukville, we would love to take them to Phnom Penh and play against our base’s team there.We want to establish a football ministry here in Kampot though our focus for now will remain with our team in Sihanoukville as we look to establish the ministry more there first.My vision is to create a mentorship program in where we train our older boys in how to coach football in hopes of them being able to create a job out of those skills.To dream really big and long-term, we would love to have our players scouted for semi-pro and or professional teams or for college scholarships overseas.The potential for what this could become are endless.To use football as a way to give these kids, these young people a new hope for their future and fresh opportunities for something better than the situations they currently face.
We are focused on the present, on the immediate impact but I also love that God encourages us to dream big, to dream for the long-term, and with God, anything is possible.Absolutely anything.We dream not to gain for ourselves, but because it is much bigger than us, we dream big to enable our kids to dream big.So I choose to believe that there is more for our kids and youth than what they currently face, whether for themselves or for the generation that follows them.I can’t wait for what is to come.