Cambodia wouldn’t strike us as a GAA stronghold, so how did Cairde Khmer about?
While watching the 2017 All-Ireland football final in a bar in Siem Reap (a city in Cambodia) last year, three Irish expats formulated the masterplan to try to set up a Cambodian GAA team to enter the Asian Gaelic Games tournament in Bangkok later that year. Those three were Patrick Campbell (Cookstown, Tyrone), Jennifer Ryan (Bishopstown, Cork) and Derek Culligan (Ballydoogan, Sligo). After making some enquiries about Irish expats living in the country’s capital city, Phnom Penh, they contacted me and I agreed to join forces. Patrick and Jennifer recruited and trained the Siem Reap men’s and ladies’ Gaelic teams, while I recruited and trained the Phnom Penh men’s and ladies’ Gaelic football teams, as well as the hurling team.
Tell us a bit about the club and the membership?
Cairde Khmer is the world’s newest GAA club, only being setup in October 2017. It is a registered member of the Asian County Board (ACB), which oversees all the clubs and tournaments in Asia. The ACB is affiliated with the GAA in Croke Park. The club’s members are spread across Cambodia’s two largest cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Regular trainings take place in both cities, and the two branches combine to form ‘Cairde Khmer’ to compete in regional tournaments. In November 2017, six weeks after its foundation, the club sent three teams to
Bangkok to play in the sian Gaelic Games. These teams included both a men’s and ladies’ football team, as well as a hurling team (amalgamated with members of Saigon Gaels GAA Club). In particular, the men’s football team did very well, losing the Junior semi-final after extra time. Currently, the club boasts about 80 members, from eight countries, including Ireland, Cambodia, England, the United States, Canada, France, Sweden and Japan.
What about the Irish expats out there. What brought them to Cambodia?
Cambodia generally appeals to the more free-spirited and adventurous personality type and, by and large, that would describe the Irish expats living here. Some, like myself, travelled here initially on a South-East Asia adventure and ended up staying. Others moved specifically here from home to take up work assignments. The club members’ job titles are varied, to say the least. We have teachers, entrepreneurs, NGO workers, journalists, photographers, multinational directors, lawyers, and doctors.
Your logo carries both Irish and Cambodian images. What was the thought process behind that decision?
‘Cairde’ is the Irish word for ‘friends’, so ‘Cairde Khmer’ translates as ‘Cambodian friends’. It was felt that the alliteration of the Irish and Khmer words had a nice ring to it.
English and Khmer text were included in the Cairde Khmer logo design, both written in the old and seldom-used Gaelic and Khmer fonts, to represent the ancient heritage of both nations. Four other elements make up the crest motif: Angkor Wat temples, the moon, an ocean wave, and Gaelic games. The Angkor Wat temples symbolise the club’s home. The Gaelic games symbolises the culture and sport of the players’ birthplace. The ocean wave symbolises the distance between these two places, and the moon symbolises the time the players have spent abroad since they first left Irish shores.
What sort of assistance do you get from Croke Park?
In late 2017, Cairde Khmer submitted a Global Games Development Fund grant application. The fund is presided over by GAA and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and provides financial support specifically for projects and initiatives that increase or improve opportunities for the Irish diaspora and other communities abroad to play Gaelic games. The results of the grant applications have not been released.
In terms of logistics, is it easy to organise training sessions and matches?
The club’s members are spread across Cambodia’s two largest cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The senior club roles are mirrored in the two cities and each branch has its own weekly training sessions. Four inter-club games take place per year, two in Phnom Penh and two in Siem Reap. For these games, one half of the team makes the 320km journey, while the other half takes care of the pitch and event organisations. In order to compete in regional tournaments, the two branches combine to form Cairde Khmer.
What do the locals make of it all?
So far, the response amongst the locals has been good, in particular amongst Cambodian female players. They affectionately refer to Gaelic football as a mix between soccer and ‘cuddle ball’, which is the Khmer translation for rugby. We have about 30 Khmer players, male and female, spread across two cities. Although small in stature, Cambodians are a tough bunch and love getting stuck in during training. One of the Khmer ladies, Cheth Kanika left her first training session with a massive bruise on her wrist from repeatedly hand-passing the ball incorrectly. After her second training session, she left with a nice black eye. Yet, after her third training session, she stayed on afterwards to work specifically on her soloing. Fifteen minutes later, when the floodlights were turned off, she took an O’Neill’s home, so she could practise more in her free time! In an attempt to make Gaelic games accessible to all locals, Cairde Khmer do not charge Cambodian players to train and play. Also, it is the club’s aim to subsidise a selected number of Cambodian players to join the team when competing in international tournaments.
Conor, you yourself have an impressive sporting CV.
I am originally from Tower in Cork. As a youth, I played GAA with Inniscarra, rugby with Muskerry, and soccer with Blarney Utd. Before I left Ireland in 2004, I was still playing soccer with Blarney Utd. At the tender age of 38, I played semi-professional soccer in Cambodia’s equivalent of a third-tier league. I have also recently taken up a new role as assistant coach, video analyst and translator at Cambodian Premier League team Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng FC. This club finished second in the 2017 Premier League, won the Cambodian Cup and boasts a squad comprising seven internationals.
You are not the only man who has links with a premier league team?
Conor Nestor (Foynes, Limerick) is head coach of Premier League team Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng FC. He is a Uefa A licenced coach and has extensive experience working with clubs, including Limerick FC and the Irish Paralympics team.
You are a Cork man. Are the Rebels the dominant force out there?
Cork would be the highest represented Irish county amongst Cairde Khmer members. Both the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh chairpersons are from Cork. Bishopstown, with four, boasts the most players from any one club.
This weekend is a historic one for the club. Why?
On Saturday, the first ever organised Gaelic football and hurling games will take place in Cambodia. In the capital city, Phnom Penh, teams from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore will partake in men’s and ladies’ Gaelic football matches. Also, an exhibition hurling game will be played. The aim of the tournament is to showcase Gaelic games in Cambodia, so as to encourage more locals to take up the sport.
You are more than just a GAA club, undertaking a lot of community and charity work.
The club’s main sponsor is an Irish charity, the SCOOP Foundation, which has been working in Cambodia since 2008, building schools that provide free education and community development for children from impoverished backgrounds. As part of the partnership, Cairde Khmer undertake fundraising initiatives at every club event hosted in Cambodia in an attempt to raise exposure and money for SCOOP’s local projects. Also, within the next two months, expat club members with teaching experience in Cambodia, will set up and run a teacher- mentoring programme. This would require a number of club members to donate two hours per month to visit SCOOP-run schools and offer teacher training to local Khmer teachers. Club players will soon offer Gaelic football training to students attending SCOOP-run schools. Through the year, Cairde Khmer members also try partake in local community, charitable and sporting events.
What is the objective for you guys in the years ahead?
In the long term, the club would also like to set up underage GAA teams in Cambodia. This would be achieved through pilot schemes, where Gaelic football would be taught in after-school programmes, PE lessons, or weekend club training sessions and games. It is hoped that in the next couple of years the club will be able to bring an underage team to the Asian Youth Games.