Cambodian charity fights COVID-19 through socially distanced soccer

By Lobsang DS Subirana

Bangkok Desk, Aug 14 (efe-epa).- Children line up across the width of a soccer pitch as the ball flies between them, sometimes trickling mere meters past defenders who at first glance seem uninterested in trying to stop its path toward the goal.

The keeper digs the ball out of the net and adjusts his mask, then play continues before the scenario repeats itself at the other end of this playground in Cambodia.

Eventually, a girl oversteps the area the referee had marked for the players and gets sent off into “quarantine.” A minute later she’s back and the match resumes with the full teams, always ensuring the members of this organization do not come within two meters of each other.

Soon enough, children adjust to what looks to be a fluid rendition of real-life table soccer and show that the beautiful game can bring them together even during times in which they need to stay apart.

This was the aim of Cambodian charity Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF) when it developed “Social Distance Football” to encourage team sports during the novel coronavirus pandemic, about which it spoke to EFE in a recent interview.

“When the government closed down all schools in Cambodia, we quickly found ways to make sure our education program kept running, through online learning and homework deliveries,” Jaime Hill, who does public relations for the charity, said Tuesday. “But how could our football coaches still help children, when the game of football was inherently unsafe, since it is a contact sport? One answer was Social Distance Football.”

Hill said the game was created after seeing children playing in the street while the pandemic was at its peak, which was unsafe due to soccer being a contract sport.

“Social Distance Football was developed by ISF’s coaches – especially Yin Samedy, head of football, in collaboration with myself – and was simply a case of working out how the game of football could be played while obeying social distance rules,” Hill said.

He added that he was inspired by table soccer, a game based on the 11-a-side sport in which the objective is to lodge the ball into the opponent’s goal through figurines spread out along four rods that the player moves along the width of the pitch.

Hill said this was the framework because it is “a game where players never touch, and tackling is impossible, and the emphasis is on passing, strategy and laser sharp shooting.”

The rules are adaptable according to the charity’s website, with the indispensable ones being that players must be tested for symptoms prior to the game, wear masks and never come within two meters of each other. Admonishments apply to those who break guidelines, with players being “sent off into quarantine for one minute.”

The idea was captured in a video showing the gist of the gameplay and the rules, which according to Hill has been watched by more than 160,000 mostly young people, and reminded them of the importance of social distancing during this time.

“Cambodian kids are in a difficult position,” the foundation’s Country Manager Vicheka Chourp said. “Schools have closed down for their safety but because most parents have to work that means some are looking after themselves or are out on the streets playing football.”

Cambodia was notoriously complacent about the effects of the novel coronavirus, with Prime Minister Hun Sen saying in late January that taking strong contingency measures would be detrimental to the economy and bilateral relations with China.

He added that suspending flights to the then affected areas in China would equate to “killing the Cambodian economy.” The strongman also allowed a stranded cruise ship to disembark in Sihanoukville, with some of its passengers later testing positive for the virus after leaving the country.

Though some measures were eventually taken, Cambodia’s approach has been deemed relaxed. Its means to test for the virus are scarce and experts believe the country could have many more cases than the 268 it had reported as of Thursday.

“Our coaches saw football being played without precautions everywhere and wanted to see if we could help,” Chourp said.

Hill, who said the initiative received support from the Asian Football Confederation, the continent’s highest governing body, added that the charity would continue to use the rules even once the pandemic is controlled to teach the importance of strategy and positioning.

“We continue to be amazed at how many people are interested in playing the game, across several continents. Not bad for a small independent Cambodian NGO with limited funds!” he said. EFE-EPA

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