CCF student Srey Chi is changing perceptions and the game of football with her prodigious talent, which has just seen her win a Player of the Year award.
Meeting Morn Srey Chi for the first time, your first impressions would be of a shy, unassuming high school student with a gentle demeanor and unfailingly polite manner.
It’s a different story on the football pitch.
With her long hair tied back in a ponytail flowing behind her, Srey Chi is a dominating presence, using her physicality to terrorize defences or strikers, scoring goals with ease and showcasing her supreme skills with the ball.
It’s like watching two distinct personalities.
Playing football, Srey Chi comes alive, free from self-doubt, and confidence flowing through her body.
This formidable talent is getting her noticed; the CCF student was recently named the Happy Football Cambodia Australia (HFCA) 2020 Scott Neeson Girl Player of the Year in recognition of her development in the sport over the last year.
Talent like hers need to be encouraged and supported.
“Srey Chi could be a big star on our future women's team. In football, she’s a potential game changer,” says Paraic Grogan, Founder and Chief Executive of HFCA, CCF’s long-standing partner and the organization with whom Srey Chi plays her football.
Srey Chi has also become a bit of a media star. Her story - and the award - was covered by several local newspapers and on social media platforms, praising her for elevating the performance of girls in football.
Mention all this to Srey Chi and she’s as modest as ever, reverting back to the reserved, softly teenager who is clearly more comfortable on the football pitch than off it.
“I love playing football. It makes me happy and excited,” she says.
And - as befitting a consummate sports professional - she emphasizes that it’s all about the team - and coach - and not the individual.
Dressed in school uniform and sitting in a room at CCF’s Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA), Srey Chi answers questions thoughtfully and as self-effacing as ever. Success has clearly not gone to her head. Those feet - the ones that are lethal clad in football boots - are still very much firmly on the ground.
“I had never got an award before so I was happy a lot. It was a surprise,” says Srey Chi, of her award.
“I always get a lot of appreciation from my friends and the coach when I play football.”
Srey Chi can, apparently, play all different positions on the pitch but says that her favourite is being in defence.
The fact she only started playing football seriously three years ago with HFCA makes her progression and rise to win the coveted Player of the Year award even more admirable.
The transformative effect of sport, and how it can change life and shape futures, can be seen in the way Srey Chi grows in stature the minute she steps onto the football pitch.
“Srey Chi has always been one of our more reserved students. However, from the first time she set foot on the football pitch, she came alive, demonstrating a level of confidence and ability that I had never seen,” says Scott Neeson CCF Founder and Executive Director.
“Her time playing and training with HFCA has honed those skills and the confidence has spilled into her everyday life.”
(Scott Neeson pictured right with Srey Chi and HFCA’s Paraic Grogan)
My mother became a breadwinner who had to bring up all the children on her own
As a child, there was little time or the means for playing sports seriously.
Srey Chi’s mother was widowed when her husband died of an illness, leaving her as the main breadwinner, bringing up four children alone. Toiling away in a rice field with Srey Chi’s two eldest sisters to provide for the family was hard work, continuing as she remarried and had three further children.
Realising that education was a way out for her youngest children, she sent Srey Chi and her brother to live with their grandmother, then a Buddhist nun and living in a pagoda in Phnom Penh.
“We live in a hut built on a pagoda campus,” Srey Chi says of this time, writing in an email.
“There are five people living in the hut; my grandmother, me, my brother, another nun and her grandson. My grandma brings me up with a very small income which she gets from other people who invite her to a ceremony at their house or sometimes from the kindness of people who go to the pagoda.”
It was Srey Chi’s grandmother who heard about Cambodian Children's Fund and the opportunity to give the youngsters in her care a better education, life, and future.
Both Srey Chi and her brother were enrolled into CCF’s program. And her grandmother (pictured below) was accepted into CCF’s Granny Program, receiving rice and a weekly stipend, enabling her to enjoy a comfortable and dignified life.
Sadly, Srey Chi’s grandmother passed away a while back and was not able to see her granddaughter win the football award, or watch her passion for the game flourish beyond expectations.
One of the first people Srey Chi did call to share the news of the award was her mum, who still lives in the province.
“I told her that I had appeared in newspapers in public too,” says Srey Chi.
“She was really happy for me and she encouraged me to do more.”
Srey Chi will also share the news with her sponsors, who have been supporting her since September 2014, along with three other CCF children.
While Srey Chi is happier being in her football kit, proudly wearing the HFCA badge (Srey Chi, pictured below top row right, with teammates), she’s applying herself to her schoolwork and is currently in Grade 10 at the NCA.
Recently, she moved into CCF’s newly opened Phum Banteay Srey - Girls to Grannies Community - which provides a safe haven for girls, grannies and single mothers in Steung Meanchey, where she lives with four friends.
The community gives older girls and CCF students like Srey Chi the chance to experience independent living within a CCF community with support and all CCF facilities on hand.
Girls can play football as good, or better, as boys
It seems that Srey Chi’s talent doesn’t run in the family. None of her six siblings (including a half sister and two half brothers) play football, including her brother who joined CCF with her and is now aged 17.
Srey Chi enjoyed playing football at CCF (pictured below left in her CCF kit) but her standard really stepped up when she joined one of the coaching programs HFCA runs for CCF students. The HFCA is fully committed to ensuring women and girls have the same opportunities to play football as men and boys.
The HFCA Scott Neeson Girl Football Player of the Year award was launched in 2019 to celebrate and acknowledge the great talent of female football players.
When asked whether girls in Cambodia are as good as boys at playing football, Srey Chi simply answers: “I can play like a man, like a boy. I can play football, why can’t girls play football?”
Her dream is to be a professional footballer or coach - failing that to join the army - and there’s no doubt she has the tenacity to succeed at whatever she puts her mind to, becoming a role model for younger girls in CCF and a generation in Cambodia to follow in her footballing footsteps.
“HFCA hopes that Srey Chi will continue playing football for many years as she is good enough to play at the highest level in Cambodian football,” says Paraic Grogan from HFCA.
“With the right support…., she can be a star in the future.”
HFCA will continue to nurture their star female footballer, and CCF is fully supportive of Srey Chi’s ambitions, wherever these may lead her.
The rest is up to her.
“I feel playing football is my talent, what I should be doing,” says Srey Chi.
Judging from her calm assuredness, Srey Chi looks set for more media fame in the future and has the world, as well as the ball, at her footballing feet.