A group of young women sporting laced-up football boots and yellow training tops stands at the roadside. It is not yet six in the morning as they await the old pick-up truck that will take them to the wooden huts on the muddy streets of the city’s edge, stopping off at many children’s homes and orphanages en route.
The setting is Battambang, a city of 200,000 people situated some 300 kilometres west of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The driver, Sina, knows the way to the wooden huts on the boundaries of the city and is undaunted by the bumpy side roads.
Each time he stops, another group of girls jumps onto the truck and before long it is precariously overloaded and buzzing ever louder with the lively chatter of its passengers.
In Cambodia, it is not only the streets that are difficult to navigate. Everyday life is also a struggle for many of the country’s 14.3 million inhabitants. Although the province of Battambang is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Cambodia on account of its fertile land, its inhabitants still have to survive on an average wage of 1,800 Riel per day, or half a US dollar.
While improvements have certainly been seen during the politically stable 23-year reign of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, regions such as Battambang still bear the lasting scars of the Khmer Rouge regime, which saw the destruction of schools, communities and families.
The average age in Cambodia is 22 and more than 50 per cent of the population is under 21. School attendance is scarce, above all in provincial areas, and there is scant support for education.
Girls in particular are forced to bear the brunt of these difficult circumstances. The lack of work and parents’ struggles to provide for their families mean that girls have to earn a wage, whether as field labourers, travelling vendors, casual workers or beggars.
It is believed that there are more orphans and street children in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world, with the organisation Street Children estimating that 20,000 children scrape together a living on the street.
Many families barter their daughters off to unscrupulous employers in good faith, turning young women into easy prey for human traffickers and leading them straight into a life of slavery and forced prostitution. Shipped across the border illegally by smugglers, they end up in the brothels of Thailand and Vietnam and are moved from one place to another, becoming lost without trace to their families.
It is a situation well known to the girls in the pick-up truck, almost all of whom come from homes and organisations that offer shelter to homeless children.
Many of them have found their way back home after long periods of enforced labour, an escape which might not have been possible had a young Swiss primary school teacher not made a name for himself in the country’s top football division before stumbling into the world of the street children following the theft of a motorbike helmet
The story began around ten years ago when Sam Schweingruber arrived in Cambodia as a recently trained 24-year-old teacher who wanted to broaden his horizon a little before his expected return to start working life in his homeland.
“I wanted to travel and see the world,” recalls Schweingruber of that first trip, which started with a stay in India, followed by a visit to the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan, before winding up in Cambodia.
Already a keen hobby footballer, with experience of coaching children back home in Switzerland and a ‘B’ coaching license from the Swiss Football Association, Schweingruber decided to stay on longer in Cambodia because, in his words, “there was a lot going on here from the very start”.
Before long he had graduated from kicking a ball around in the park to starring as a midfielder in the country’s Premier League. Thanks to a considerable height advantage over his opponents, he never lost an aerial encounter. By way of a monthly salary, his club Mild Seven paid him a box of cigarettes and USD 30 in cash.
With his methodical approach and know-how, Schweingruber was soon promoted to coach. However, football in Cambodia was all about the Premier League and not much else. The Cambodia men’s national team was ranked 178th in the World Ranking and only one coach in the whole country held an ‘A’ coaching licence.
Street football was rough and unstructured, and there was neither system of youth development nor any junior leagues.
It was a couple of years after his arrival in the country that an incident happened which was to change the course of Schweingruber’s life – and eventually the lives of many Cambodian youngsters.
“I used to ride around Phnom Penh on my motorbike, and I was chatting to a friend once when I turned around and saw that my helmet had been stolen,” Schweingruber recalls. “I confronted the thief, who was trying to sell the helmet and saw that he was high on drugs. Nobody was looking after him or cared what happened to him.”
The encounter opened Schweingruber’s eyes, as he realised that he could help a lot more people in Cambodia than he could at home.
In June 2004, Schweingruber formed his first team of street children on a random street corner in Phnom Penh where he had almost run one of them over on his scooter. He held his training sessions late in the evening and it took him a long time to gain the acceptance and appreciation of local footballing officials. Then, in 2006, he was offered a contract with the association to develop youth football.
This project fell by the wayside due to a change in the association’s management on the day Schweingruber was due to sign the contract, so instead he took matters into his own hands, moving to Battambang to found an academy which he named SALT – standing for Sport and Leadership Training.
He reached into his own pocket to buy caps, balls and training tops, and quickly set up his own weekend league. Fifteen U-17 teams started the season in the autumn of 2006, and a year later the girls also got on board.
Nowadays, over 2,000 boys and girls from three provinces take part in more than 500 matches per season. Before each match, voluntary support workers hold leadership lessons in which they teach the children life skills and how to avoid alcohol abuse, drug addiction and petty crime.
Schweingruber had his work cut out convincing people of the benefits of his work.
“I wanted to show that the role of football goes beyond training but it is difficult to change people’s way of thinking. Many parents still believed that sport was a waste of time and that it didn’t teach you any life skills.”
Since women continue to have a low status in Cambodian society, Schweingruber created training groups specifically for girls.
“Many young women are prevented from developing independently and making their own way in life like us. Through our work, we can show that girls also deserve respect.”
Schweingruber’s patience was eventually rewarded. SALT went on to have U-11, U-13 and U-16 teams for boys and a men’s senior team that takes part in national tournaments, as well as U-13 and U-16 girls’ teams.
By now trained as a FIFA Grassroots Instructor, Schweingruber had also become an expert in women’s football across the country and when Cambodia were invited to play their first international women’s match in Laos in spring 2009, it was only logical that Schweingruber be appointed coach of the women’s national team.
It is a position which he holds to this day, although he is quick to point out that the ad hoc nature of the team’s schedule means his role cannot be compared to that of a full-time national trainer.
Nevertheless, there have been a number of personal successes that have gone far beyond the individual results of the team’s sporadic matches.
During that inaugural FIFA-sponsored trip to Laos, for example, the Cambodian line-up included Nin and Vesna, two young sisters who had begun to play football in the SALT Academy after returning from a life of exploitation and abuse in Thailand.
The pair were such good players that they quickly clinched a regular place in the team, and, nowadays, Nin even wears the captain’s armband. What is more, she has been trained as a course instructor in Schweingruber’s coaching workshops and now earns her money as a coach.
“Before I discovered SALT, I rarely laughed,” Nin points out. “Now I’ve been playing football for three years and I’ve been laughing a great deal during that time.”
Such stories provide a fitting tribute to the work carried out by SALT and by the academy’s Swiss founder in the seven years since his almost accidental stumbling into the world of the street children.
“Ironically, my own parents never wanted me to play football, because they thought it would be a bad influence, particularly on my education,” says Schweingruber with a smile. “Now, though, I have been able to prove here in Cambodia that football and education can complement each other.
“As a teacher in Switzerland I was already interested in the educational role of football and how it could be about much more than just kicking a ball. But my experiences since coming to Cambodia have taken that to a whole new level. It has shown me how it is possible for football to make a real difference in children’s lives, starting with just a few simple kick-arounds.
“The leagues that the kids now play in and the educational elements that the academy has introduced are, of course, a lot more advanced than any of us could have dreamt of in the early days, but the principle remains the same: changing the perspectives of disadvantaged children just by making it possible for them to play.”
PIX (Courtesy of Sam Schweingruber): FC Basel chairwoman Gigi Oeri with one of the girls’ team from Battambang