Tag Archives: Cambodia

Breaking Barriers: A chat with Seut Baraing, one of Cambodia’s finest

Height has been a factor for some, if not many managers, when they select their players. Often, managers want tall, commandeering defenders who can win aerial battles and towering forwards who can easily head in goals. Thus, many shorter footballers often get overlooked because of their height. Take for example Angel Gomes at Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjær chose not to field the attacking midfielder because he wasn’t tall enough and, hence, could be easily bullied by the physical nature of the league.

However, some of the world’s best footballers are by no means the tallest. The late Diego Maradona stood at 1.65m. Alejandro “Papu” Gómez is also 1.65m tall, while Lionel Messi stands at 1.7m. Angel Gomes himself has done relatively well at Portuguese top flight side Boavista, where he is currently on loan at from Lille OSC.

Seut Baraing may be an unfamiliar name to most, but he is one other player that falls into this category of short but immensely talented footballers. Never let his 1.6m height fool you. The right-back has a ton of pace, stamina, and physicality. He has a remarkable ability to run down the flanks to support attacking plays and easily sprints back to fulfill his defensive responsibilities. The 21-year-old is part of a new generation of technically gifted Cambodian footballers, and it is my honour to share his story.

Siem Reap Born and Bred

Seut Baraing was born in Siem Reap and started playing football “properly” when he was at Srah Soang High School. Before that, Baraing developed the love for the beautiful game in the open grounds outside his village temple. Back then, his peers and him could only play football bare foot, and this continued all the way until he was in high school.

However, while Baraing was crazy about football, his family was not (at first).

“Every time I try to go and play football, my family doesn’t let me. 11 years ago, football in Cambodia was not like how [developed] it is now. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. I would go every evening to play football outside the temple grounds and I would come back home late [at night]. They would tell me to focus on my studies instead.”

During the intitial year at Srah Soang High, Baraing could not was not allowed to play football because his mother had informed the school football team coach that she forbade him from playing. Yet a determined Baraing wasn’t going to let his mother stand in the way of his dreams. A year later, his passion for the game was overwhelming and he approached the football coach, who was impressed by his desire and got him a spot on the team.

In 2009, Baraing would go on to represent his school in the Siem Reap provincial tournament, which Srah Soang High finished as runners-up. Despite narrowly losing in the final, their second placed finish meant that they were eligible to represent Sieam Reap alongside the champion school in the Government Cup that was held at Phnom Penh. Up till that point, Baraing had been playing barefoot, but the government cup required the footballers to play with boots.

“They took all the first and second placed teams from each province to play in the Government Cup. When we went to Phnom Penh was when we started to wear boots. It was the first-time wearing boots for me. It was funny because all of us were wearing boots for the first time and I was one of the few players who could really kick far with the boots on. We were not used to it.”

The Phnom Penh Crown Adventure

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

It was about this time when Phnom Penh Crown started to invest their resources in building an academy for footballers. There wasn’t much done by professional clubs for internal youth development before this, and the club were trailblazers in this regard. The club had two trials – one trial in each province to shortlist promising candidates and another one for shortlisted candidates at Phnom Penh to trim the squad to form a U-13 team.

“The trials happened in 2010. I was the only one from Siem Reap who made it to the second round of trials in Phnom Penh. I remember them calling all the schools in Siem Reap to send footballers for the trial. A few months later, I went to the second trial at Phnom Penh and I managed to impress enough to get selected for the Phnom Penh U-13 team.”

While it was a joyous occasion for Baraing, it was somewhat bitter sweet because he had to reside to Phnom Penh alone and stay far away from his family. Unlike most of his new teammates, he had been the only one from Siem Reap, which made him feel a tad bit isolated at first. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before he became well acquainted with his peers. Life at Phnom Penh was really good for Baraing, as the club took care of his accommodations, food, and even sent him to one of the best international schools in the city.

A few months after joining the academy, along with 10 of his teammates, Baraing came to Singapore to participate in the Soccer Sixes 2012 tournament held by the Singapore Cricket Club. It was the first time Baraing had left the country, and he had always dreamt of flying.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

“Before Phnom Penh Crown, I never thought that I could fly. I have always dreamed of flying and getting on an airplane but I didn’t think it was possible. When I went to the academy, this dream then became [a reality]. We spent 5 days in Singapore and we played against a team from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Singapore was the first country I traveled to outside of Cambodia and I love it so much. Until now, I love Singapore. I even came here for holiday a few years ago.”

Returning to Cambodia, Baraing was called up to represent the Cambodian National Under-13 team in a tournament in Malaysia. For the next few years, international travel would be a common theme for the footballer.

“Because [I wanted to pursue] my footballing dreams, I [was forced to] stay far from my family. Phnom Penh Crown built the first academy in Cambodia with the aim of challenging other countries and not just being the best in Cambodia. We have gone to Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, and so many other countries to improve the standard of football. It wasn’t just the academy but the national team as well. I rose up the ranks of the various youth levels and also had the chance to play at a lot of places as well.

“Before I left for Phnom Penh Crown, my father asked me if I was serious abut playing football. He told me to go there and not to just have fun and return. He said I needed to go all out and become successful. I told him that I really wanted to go and show him that I can do it.”

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

And Baraing did show his father. It was under head coach Sam Schweingruber in 2016 that Baraing had his big break. Schweingruber wanted to blood in more academy prospects into the team and called Baraing up for first team training in 2015. While he had impressed during training, the Cambodian footballing authorities would not allow Phnom Penh Crown to field a 15-year-old Baraing because they felt he was too young and therefore needed protection.

“So, I could only train with the first team but I cannot play for the league. I was too young according to them. I remembered the rule where they did not allow very young players. In 2016, when I was 17 years old, I managed to make my first team debut.”

Baraing would go onto cement his position in the Phnom Penh Crown team, and Anthony Aymard mentioned how he was blown away by his technical ability.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

In 2017, then Cambodian National Team manager, Lee Tae Hoon, handed Baraing his debut for the Cambodian National Team. His first start came against a titan of Asian football, Saudi Arabia. Even though Cambodia lost against Saudi Arabia, it was a day to remember for the left-back. Lee would soon be replaced by Leonardo Vitorino, who continued to call up Baraing for the national team. Under the Brazilian, Baraing faced Jordan and India. Featuring regularly in the national team is one goal that the left-back has in mind, and he is continuously looking for ways to better himself so that he can cement his position.

Coping with His Height

As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to know how Baraing adapted to his lack of height while he plays.

“I cannot stay close with taller attackers when the opponents play the long ball. I cannot jump and challenge for the ball with them because of their height. So, I learned to play more intelligently. I wait for them to make their first touch and then the second touch I’ll come in to take the ball from them and I go. A few days a week, I always do extra training to work on my other areas. It is very important to look for the overlap and play the ball when. I also work a lot on my speed so I work a lot on my fitness.”

Baraing grew up idolizing Marcelo, and he always tried to analyze the way the Brazilian moved. The Cambodian International is an aggressive player who is never afraid of making challenges. He works on the other areas of his game and, in some ways, his relative shortness has also made him a more intelligent footballer.

Returning Home with Angkor Tigers and Future Aspirations

After 4 years with Phnom Penh Crown, Baraing made a surprise move to Angkor Tigers for a season-long loan. Since leaving home in 2010 to join the Phnom Penh academy, Baraing had never spent an extended period of time with his family and felt like he needed to do so after so long. Thankfully, both clubs agreed on terms for a season-long loan but family was not the only factor that convinced Baraing to link up with Angkor Tigers.

Photo Credits: Angkor Tiger FC

Besides having the desire to play a team from his native Siem Reap, it was the close friendship he shared with head coach Oriol Mohedano at Phnom Penh Crown that spurred him to agree with the deal. Oriol took over as Angkor Tigers head coach after leaving Phnom Penh Crown and has remained there since 2017.

“Every year when I come to Siem Reap, coach Oriol would ask me when I will come and play for the Tigers. He would always ask me when I will play for the team in my province. I think it is nice that I was born in Siem Reap and I can play for a team in Siem Reap. That being said, whatever I had came from Phnom Penh Crown. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In his short but eventful career thus far, Baraing has already fulfilled most of his goals but one still remains elusive.

“I have three dreams and two I have already fulfilled. First, I want to play for Phnom Penh Crown. Second, I wanted to play for the national team. Third, I want to play overseas. The third dream is not yet fulfilled but every day I work hard and try my best to fulfil the last one.”

I wanted to share Baraing’s story to partly shed more light on football in Cambodia but also highlight that shorter footballers need not be overlooked because of their height. Of course, some managers would want to play a team of tall imposing footballers because it suits their system better. However, I think it is important for members of the football fraternity to be open to any possibility.

One thing is for certain though, expect to see some moments of magic from Baraing this upcoming season. Who knows, he might just secure a move overseas.

Featured Image credits: Angkor Tigers FC

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Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike most Cambodian internationals, Thierry, while ethnically Khmer, was born in France and even represented the French U-16 team. Don’t let that misguide you, though, Thierry is a patriotic Cambodian and is proud to don the national team jersey every single time. For those of you unfamiliar with Thierry, he plays as a defensive midfielder and he is one of the best Southeast Asian DMs today. I have always wanted to know more about Thierry, and I had the privilege to talk to him a few weeks ago. This is his story.

Humble Beginnings

Thierry was born in Villepinte, which is a commune located in the north-east suburbs of Paris, to Cambodian parents. Thierry’s parents had fled Cambodia during the 1970s just before Pol Pot took control of the state. However, while he was born a French citizen, Thierry’s heart always belonged to Cambodia. He was brought up in a traditional Cambodian household, learning Khmer, eating Cambodian cuisine, and celebrating traditional Cambodian holidays.

Nevertheless, it was in France where Thierry developed his passion for the beautiful game. Like many of us, Theirry grew up with football, and he often played it with his friends. Ever since he was young, he had always been an ardent Manchester United fan (good man) and he idolized David Beckham. While he may have played football casually before he reached his teenage years, that was about to change as he became a teen. At age 14, Thierry signed with the academy of renowned French club RC Strasbourg [who now play in Ligue 1]. It was during his time at the academy when Thierry honed his craft as a footballer, and the experience motivated him to try and become a professional player.

Thierry left the Strasbourg Academy and sought for a professional career elsewhere in France. However, the dream to play at the highest level in France failed to materialize, and Thierry played in the lower divisions in France, turning out for reputable teams like FC Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and FCM Aubervilliers. However, Thierry wanted more – to become a professional player had been his dream for years, and he knew he would look back with regret if he never tried his hardest to become one.

In 2012, Thierry, motivated by his passion to play football professionally without having to work part-time, decided to move to Cambodia to carve out a professional career for himself. It was only the second time Thierry had been in Cambodia (he had been in Cambodia in 2007 with his family). Thierry went to Cambodia as part of a team of foreign players with Cambodian ancestry and heritage. This team went for trials, and a few players managed to earn contracts with Cambodian clubs. Thierry was one such player, and Phnom Penh Crown came in for the defensive midfield general. It would mark the start of a 4-year association with the club.

Living the Dream with Phnom Penh Crown FC , Misfortune with Krabi FC & Almost Playing in Singapore

The transition from football in France to Cambodia was an interesting one for Thierry.

“The environment and the infrastructure were [completely different]. However, I know I didn’t expect the conditions in Cambodia to be the same in France. I wasn’t sad and or anything. I was doing my best to enjoy my work. The only thing I [sort of] faced a challenge with, is the weather. Even now, it is very hot. For me, I like the cold weather. So, when I came here, it was very hot for me at first and it didn’t help that matches were played at 3pm. So, it was very difficult. Now thankfully, few teams have flood lights so matches can be played at 6pm.”

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

During his 4-year stint with Phnom Penh Crown, Thierry would go on to win the C-League title on two occasions. It was also during his time at Phnom Penh when Thierry met his wife in 2013. In 2016, Thierry would end his stint with Phnom Penh on what could be best described as not in the best of terms. It is something that he still is unhappy about – the manner in which he departed the club. Thailand would be his next destination, with Krabi FC his new team [then playing in the 2016 Thai Division 1 League]. A Brazilian coach at Phnom Penh helped Thierry get into contact with Krabi, and the Thai outfit signed him up on a three-year deal.

“Football in Thailand was good. They have good pitches and you’re surrounded by good players. I loved the football there.”

However, that spell would end sooner than expected, as after 6 months, the Thai club replaced their head coach. Unfortunately, Thierry wasn’t in the new coach’s plans, and he would return to Cambodia via a loan to Électricité du Cambodge FC for a few months.

Interestingly, before the move to Krabi transpired, Thierry had an offer from a Singaporean club in 2016. Who was this club? Let the man tell you himself:

“I almost signed for Tampines Rovers. I did not sign with them because I was a big fan of football in Thailand and I really wanted to play there instead.”

I won’t lie. When Thierry revealed this to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was also wondering about what could have been. Surely, it would have been a real coup for the Stags to sign a player of Thierry’s quality.

When asked about whether that was a possibility in the distant future, he had this to say:

“I’m interested to play anywhere so long as I am happy and comfortable with it.”

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

Raising his Game to the Next Level – Stints with Terengganu, Sukhothai & Perak

Fortunately, Thierry found an escape from his ordeal with Krabi, as Terengganu FC came knocking on his door. Playing for Terengganu is something that Thierry looks back with fond memories.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The experience in Malaysia was very very good. I really enjoyed my football and the life I lived there. I really admired the players, the staff, the coaches, and the fans. Everything was very good. One moment that I remember is when I played in the Malaysia Cup with Terengganu in 2018. My daughter was also born in Terengganu in 2019 so it has a special place in my heart.”

After a 2-year spell with the Turtles, an offer from Thailand came beckoning again in 2020. This time, Thai league 1 side Sukothai came in with an offer. Unfortunately, his time in Thailand would be marred with yet another issue. Thierry mutually terminated his contract with the club after 3 months into his one-year deal with them. An issue developed between his agent and the coaches which resulted in his decision to leave the country.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Thierry had different offers on the table, but after a brilliant spell with Terengganu, he had his heart set on a return to Malaysia. This time, Perak became his new home. However, Thierry couldn’t feature much for the Bos Gaurus because the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“It was very difficult. Being home for 3 months with no training; no football. I was with my family thankfully because I had friends [other teammates] who had no family around them like I did.”

However, Thierry’s fine performances at defensive midfield helped Perak finish 4th in the Malaysia Super League. His impressive performances did not go unnoticed, and a slew of clubs came in with offers for the Cambodian talisman. However, Thierry decided to return to Cambodia instead, signing for Visakha FC.

The Current Visakha Project

To those unfamiliar with Cambodian football, Visakha FC are a relatively new club that have made some serious strides in becoming a real force to contend with. The club was formed in 2016, and in 2020, they won their first accolade, the Hun Sen Cup [think of it as the Cambodian F.A. Cup]. The club have some serious financial backing and through their injections, are trying to revolutionize Cambodian football. Some of the stalwarts playing alongside Thierry this season include Afghan international and former FC St. Pauli II player Mustafa Zazai and Cambodian international and ex-PKNP forward Keo Sokpheng.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Another reason why Thierry wanted to come back was because Visakha offered him a multi-year contract. Besides the prospect of being part of the Visakha project in the long-run and helping it grow, Thierry also wanted the job security. At 29, Thierry is still far away from retirement, but he is already thinking ahead and looking at post-playing possibilities.

“If I go abroad to play, I always only sign a one-year contract and I need that stability now. It is sort of a gamble. I chose Visakha because they are the best club in Cambodia right now – they are the best club in terms of team, management, and infrastructure. Really, everything is the best.”

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

Besides his accolades at the club level, Thierry is also an accomplished international footballer for Cambodia. Once upon a time, however, Thierry was on track to represent France. He had played for the French Under-16 team in the past. While opportunities to represent France at the youth level became limited due to huge number of talented French players, his youth caps illustrate the quality that Thierry brings to the table.

Fast forward a few years, while with Phnom Penh, Thierry got called up to the Cambodian Under-23 team in 2013. While it was proud achievement for Thierry, his dream was still to represent the national senior team one day. He didn’t have to wait for long because in 2014, Thierry’s dream materialized into reality.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The best day ever. I enjoyed every [national team] training before that match. It was a dream for me to represent my country. I was lucky to get the chance to be the captain of the team. It was a big honour for me. I am very proud because I worked very hard for this, and it is sort of like a reward.”

The biggest moment of his footballing career came not long after when Thierry captained Cambodia against the footballing titans of Asia themselves, the Japanese national team in 2015. Playing against Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo. It will forever be a precious memory for Thierry. That same year, Thierry also scored his first international goal against Macau. He had been plagued with injuries in 2014, and that goal (especially at home in front of 60,000 passionate Cambodian fans) was another magical moment he recalls. Thierry does believe that the Cambodian national team has greatly progressed since his debut in 2014, but he notes how there is room for much more improvement.

“I wish that more Cambodian footballers move abroad and step out of their comfort zone. I do feel that the C-League is improving, but footballers need to go overseas and test themselves to become better. Going overseas will really challenge you. You need to take that risk.”

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

“I think there are many barriers. The Language, the food, and the distance from the family are some reasons why Cambodians don’t try to go overseas. To young Cambodian players, I would tell them to sacrifice everything for their own development. They need to make sure that they work hard and eat properly. They need to train extra and really push themselves. The coach can’t always spoon feed you or keep an eye on you. Right now, some players think after reaching the national team, they don’t have to push anymore.”

Thierry has also overcome many personal struggles in his journey thus far. Often only showcasing the positive things that have happened, many do not know how much he struggled with his injuries and finding clubs to play for.

“When I was at Phnom Penh Crown, I was out of contract for 3 months and I was really stressed about finding a team. Luckily, I managed to find one. I do think that had I stayed with Phnom Penh Crown, I might have not left Cambodia. I struggled a lot for 3 months. I was lucky to have my wife and family who really believed in me and gave me the strength to fight harder.”

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

There are a number of people that Thierry believes that played a big part in his journey in Cambodia. His parents and wife had immensely supported the player, especially when he was struggling. One other person that played a big part is Anthony Aymard, the ex-Tanjong Pagar defender, who helped Thierry a lot. They are still in regular contact with each other.

Interestingly, while he has a massive social media following, there is no big team that handles his socials. It is all ran by the man himself – Thierry (with the help of his wife, at times).

What’s next for Thierry? Well besides playing an active role in helping Vaisakha attain new heights, Thierry also wants to mentor young Cambodian footballers. He believes many young Cambodian talents lack the necessary skills required for overseas football. Besides issues with language, Thierry wants to help equip players with the necessary knowledge on transfers, contracts, and marketing themselves.

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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Starting A New Life After Retiring As A Player

After putting an end to his footballing career despite offers from second division sides in Bolivia, Saito returned to Singapore in 2009 to engage in another IT Sales job, (interestingly, Saito did his degree in Sports Science) but also to start his own football business – Global Football Academy. In the beginning, the core business was to start a football academy to cater to the then approximately 20,000 strong Japanese community in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Back then, there weren’t many academies that targeted the Japanese community. So, my partner and I started our own. We started small and then we had 200, and then 300 [kids] and then we got bigger and bigger and bigger. On top of that, we also saw a sports marketing opportunity and we started approaching Japanese companies to see if they wanted to collaborate.”

Yet, GFA began to expand at an unprecedented rate and Saito knew that it would be impossible for him to juggle both his job and football business. He had to give up one and it was a no brainer for Saito – football was always his first love and he was happy to make it a viable lifelong career.

However, it wasn’t just in Singapore that Saito established a sports business presence. In other parts of Southeast Asia, like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Saito began to engage in other initiatives. It was in Cambodia in particular where Saito decided to establish himself more. In 2012, together with another partner, Saito set up the Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Cambodia is interesting. We [started] a football academy but the volume of sports marketing is also much. much bigger than in Singapore. When it comes to the economy of a country, Singapore is much bigger. However, but in Cambodia, there is a lot of possibilities and many things we can do [for sports marketing]. Initially, many Japanese companies struggled to make a break through in Cambodia because the ordinary means of marketing like TV or radio commercials do not work well over there.”

Saito capitalized on this issue and proposed to Japanese firms that football can become an excellent platform for their marketing. Saito is a strong advocate that “football can draw the people and get their attention.” It was his steadfast belief and his experience with GFA in Singapore that convinced mega corporations like Toyota and Yamaha to work together with Saito.

“Our first project was with Toyota. To do business with Toyota is very very difficult. You cannot even open the door [to collaborate with them]. They have high expectations and they want results but also quality. Because of this, they only work with entities that they can trust. So, we were one of the lucky ones.”

His first day in Cambodia is something that Saito remembers very fondly.

“I remember my first day in Cambodia. I was supposed to meet our sponsors office after touching down. It was my first time in Cambodia and I don’t know much about the country. So, I was supposed to meet my partner in Cambodia but it happened such that i was to meet with our potential sponsors, Toyota Cambodia, first before meeting him . So, I met them and while I was new to Cambodia, I had a lot of experience with sport marketing in Singapore. I pitched them my idea and I expected a big company like theirs to take a few weeks to respond. But, right away, they were sold and asked me how much. I met my partner and told him that we have a sponsor [for our profit and non-profit initiatives].”

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

Focusing more on Cambodia for Future Endeavours

In 2019, Saito left his role at GFA and sold off most of his shares. He started a new company in Singapore, Football For Everyone. However, Saito aims to focus more on Cambodia and has recently left Singapore to return to Cambodia. For him, there is a lot of untapped potential in the Cambodian economy as well as in Cambodian football, and he has seen first hand how the country has progressed over the years.

“When I first arrived at Cambodia, it was pitch black at night. Now, there are lighted streets. There are big shopping malls now and five-star hotels. They are dramatically changing every year. Regarding football, ten years ago, not many people watched it. But there were signs that football would boom. When the national team plays, there are 60,000 fans watching the match. It’s amazing because their [stadium] capacity is 50,000. So the national team turnout is good. If the domestic league improves, then there can be a lot of opportunities.

“So I started watching Cambodian football closely. Of course there is poverty in Cambodia. However, if we help the poor through football, we can help people. So my company goes to orphanages and similar places every month to conduct football clinics. So Japanese companies, as part of their CSR efforts, contribute to the community.”

Besides community outreach efforts to help the needy, Saito also does his part to help with the development of budding footballers. Saito is also a Mizuno marketing partner in Cambodia (and Myanmar). Instead of selling Mizuno products, Saito promotes the Mizuno brand by scouting for young talented Cambodian footballers and having them sign as supporters of Mizuno. These players become ambassadors of the Mizuno brand and wear their apparel. Saito hasn’t done too bad in this department as well. Roughly 25 to 30 percent of Cambodian players in the top flight right now wear Mizuno boots. This might be a small fraction to some, but mind you, 10 years ago, practically no one was wearing Mizuno boots in the country.

Cambodia is a footballing nation that is clearly on the rise, and it is only a matter of time before more start to take notice of the C-League and the wealth of young talent in the country.

The Man that Played Football with 40,000 Kids

“You know, until age 32, I played football all the way and football gave me a lot. It taught me a lot and I wanted to give back to society. When I came to Cambodia, I came across so many kids that wanted to play but they had no opportunity to do so. They had no environment, proper training, nor proper pitch to play.

“I don’t plan them to become a professional. No, that is not what I want to do. I want them to give them the opportunity to play and be happy; to share the positive energy that’s in football. I want to continue this. In fact, over the course of the past 9 years, I counted the number of kids I worked with. I have played football with 40,000 Cambodian kids.”

40,000 is certainly an impressive number, and, as mentioned earlier, Saito notes how this was only possible because of the endless support of his Japanese sponsors who provide him with the means to conduct numerous clinics, and with an extraordinary level of dedication from his staff. It is truly remarkable how Saito has made such a positive impact on the lives of literally tens of thousands of less fortunate Cambodian children.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

More importantly, Saito highlights how the level of Cambodian football among children has significantly increased since he first started conducting such clinics over a decade ago. He cites two reasons for this increase in footballing standards. For one, there have been more grassroots initiatives across the country for football. Also, Cambodian clubs have gradually been focusing more on youth development, with most clubs having established U-14 to U-18 teams.

Despite the increasing football standards, there is still a gap that Cambodian football needs to close with other teams in Southeast Asia.

“Last year, Tampines Rovers played in the AFC Cup against Nagaworld and won by 3 goals, so there still is a gap, but the gap is reducing. Things are changing.”

Besides providing a platform for children to express themselves through football and helping current hot prospects with sponsorship opportunities, Saito also recently saw one of his academy players gain entry into Phnom Penh Crown’s U-15 side, something which he is incredibly proud of.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

What’s next for Saito? Besides concentrating more on Soriya and his football clinics in Cambodia, Saito intends to boost his initiatives in Myanmar. As a result (and also due to the ongoing pandemic), however, Saito would be spending significantly less time in Singapore. Whatever the endeavor, and wherever it may take him, I am sure that Saito will leave a positive impact, as he always does.

Featured Image provided by Saito. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

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