As Australian Football League (AFL) continues to gain traction in the Kingdom, writer Eve Watling goes behind the scenes with the Cambodian Eagles. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

As the dusky pink sunset fades from the sky, the furthest pitch at Phnom Penh’s 3G stadium is coming to life. The Cambodian Eagles AFL team, bedecked in singlets and shorts, jog onto the floodlit grass, stretching and throwing a few warm-up balls.

Founded in 2000 as the Cambodian Crocodiles, the Eagles are the current incarnation of Cambodia’s first official AFL team. After morphing into the Cobras in 2008, a chance 2011 encounter with the Australian West Coast Eagles formed a lasting affiliation between the two teams, and led to the Cambodian team settling on its current name.

For the uninitiated, AFL is roughly similar to rugby – although there are some major differences. Players play on an oval pitch, and points are scored solely by kicking the ball. With 18 players on the ground, the sport has more team members than rugby, and is considered to be more physically demanding.

Outside of Australia, AFL remains somewhat of a niche game, making the Cambodian Eagles’ achievements all the more impressive. As well as touring across the region, the team hosted the Indochina Cup in 2014, which, according to Eagles’ secretary and Khmer development officer Graeme Wort, was “a roaring success”.

As well as breaking ground as the first official ALF team in Cambodia, the Eagles are notable for their strong spirit of inclusion. Of all the teams in Southeast Asia, they boast the most local players, and are single-minded in their approach to recruit more.

“AFL is a strange sport for Khmers,” explains the Eagles’ 22 year-old vice-captain Chin Sitha. “We’re trying to introduce more Cambodians to the game. A lot are put off by tackling, and think it’s dangerous, but it’s not when we know how to protect ourselves. The first time I played I thought it was dangerous, then I came back and the guys showed me how to avoid accidents, and now I have confidence when I play. Now I actually like tackling the most.”

The Eagles’ jocular Australian captain John Beever, known to teammates as Strokesy, explains the league’s ambitions.  “Next year, we’re starting an all-Khmer team that’s separate from the Cambodian Eagles,” he says. “We’ll start small with one team and have nine against nine games, and then grow from there. Eventually, we’ll try and have a whole league of Khmer players.” The Eagles also have a personal development programme to assist with players’ career ambitions, find them appropriate education or courses, and look for job opportunities.

For some local players, the Eagles has been a strong support on their path to a better life. Both Sitha and star player Nan Nas started life as child rubbish collectors at the Stung Meanchey dumpsite. After joining schools through NGO organisations, Sitha and Nas were eventually recruited by the Cambodian Eagles.

For Sitha, joining the Eagles has given him opportunities that would have been unimaginable as a teenage can collector. “Since I joined the team, I can go abroad and play with other teams in other countries,” he says. “So far, I’ve been to Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos with the team. Last season we got to the final, but lost to Laos. They were quick like lightening – every time they took a shot, it was a goal. It was unbelievable. Even though we haven’t won any tournaments yet, every time we play one we are motivated to try harder.”

The Eagles also provide a support network for Sitha, who studies sales and marketing at PSE. “Since I joined AFL, I have met many other players who have their own restaurants and companies who are willing to help us. They want us to play forever, so they think how they can help us find jobs and places to stay.” Sitha is motivated not just for himself, but for his family. “I hope one day to go professional – that’s my dream. My father still makes a living picking up rubbish, even though he is 60-years-old. I don’t want him to work there anymore. I want to work hard for him.”

Nan Nas, also 22, joined AFL when his NGO, A New Day Cambodia, got an Australian director. “She introduced us to AFL – I’d never heard of it before,” Nas says. “We started to practice with Australian guys. At first I felt I was too small, but now I think I can help my team.”

Captain Strokesy cuts in. “You might think he’s too small to look at him, but he often wins player of the day over any of the expats. His size helps him with his speed. He’s taken home more trophies than anyone on the team.” Nas’ awards include Rising Star, Best Indigenous player and Best on Ground. If he doesn’t become a professional soccer or AFL player, his dream is to help other Cambodians from disadvantaged backgrounds. “When I graduate, I want to help develop remote areas,” he says. Strokesy is optimistic about AFL’s future in Cambodia. “Most Khmers I know love sports, whether its rugby, soccer, AFL or volleyball. As long as they can get out, have a run and learn a bit a bit of English along the way, they’ll continue to play,” he says.