Australian football history will be made on Saturday in Phnom Penh with the first women’s game being played between Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Cambodian Apsaras will face the Saigon Gaels on home turf at 1:30pm, after an 11am curtain raiser between the men’s teams, Cambodian Eagles and Vietnam Swans. The game will be played on the magnificent facilities of the International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP).
The Cambodian Eagles are the official AFL team of Cambodia, have made strong inroads over the past five years and are now a competitive force in the region. A desire to grow the game on a local level led to the formation of the men’s Khmer-only Cambodian Cobras football team in 2016.
Later in 2016, a chance comment in a pub between Cambodian Eagles player, Peter Kokke and a female friend got the ball rolling on the formation of the women’s team. Within weeks, women’s training sessions had been established, which led to four women competing in a 2016 AFL Asian Championships exhibition match in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
“Even though three of the girls had never played before, they played exceptionally well” said coach Peter Kokke.
The seed had been sown for AFL Women’s in Cambodia. Interest from women continued to grow, despite it being off-season for the Cambodian Eagles. Pre-season training for the 2017 season was brought forward so the women could start training and on February 11, around 25 girls showed up to their first training session. The players chose a team name – The Apsaras – and the Cambodian AFLW team was formed.
Carla Mason is on the Cambodian Eagles Board and was integral in recruiting for the Cambodia Apsaras. In business, Carla works closely with her close-knit family of Khmer staff; she knows well that locals possess keen skills and spatial awareness from physically active lifestyles and growing up playing street games.
“Some of the girls were amazing and even though they hadn’t played it before they definitely have natural talent”, she said. “Importantly, the love of the game is there,” with Carla noting “The smiles went from ear to ear”.
Each week participation levels grow with the team currently numbering close to 40 members, made up of expats and a majority of Khmer players from charity organisation ‘A New Day Cambodia’, which provides shelter, food and education for impoverished children in Phnom Penh.
The unexpectedly large interest in Australian football since the start of the inaugural AFL Women’s competition in Australia this year seems to have carried to Cambodia. Women outnumber men in training sessions, and excitement is building toward the upcoming international match.
While history is being made on Saturday, momentum has built quickly and strongly for AFLW in Cambodia and this will surely be the first of many AFL matches played by women in the South-East Asia region.