Editor Marissa Carruthers joins Cambodia’s first Gaelic football team for a training session to find out more about the club’s mission in Cambodia. Photography by Enric Català.

It’s fair to say the nerves kicked in as I arrived at BKK primary school to take part in my first Gaelic football training session. As I watched the ball being kicked across the pitch dotted with sprinting players, I gulped – it had been many years since I engaged in any form of active sport, and I questioned whether I was going to be able to keep up.

In fact, I’d tried to bottle it 30 minutes earlier, but team coach and co-founder of Cambodia’s first Gaelic football club, Conor Wall, was having none of it. “Bring your kit along, it’ll be fun and there’s a few new players so you’ll not be alone,” he said. Reluctantly I agreed. And I’m glad I did.

What ensued was an hour of the unexpected. After a short warm up of stretching exercises and running up and down the pitch, we split into male and female teams, and the training began.

Wall gently led us through some of the moves essential to the game, splitting us into groups so we could practice hand passes, kicking and catching the ball before it was time to take part in my first mini-match, where I was able to put my newly-learned skills – not-so-successfully – to the test.

It was while watching the All-Ireland finals in a bar in Siem Reap in September that Irish expats, Patrick Campbell, Jennifer Ryan and Derek Culligan decided to set up a Cambodian GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), to enter the Asian Gaelic Games tournament in Bangkok.

Wanting to get the capital in on the action, they contacted Wall and agreed to join forces to recruit and train players in the respective cities. In October, Cairde Khmer was formed and six weeks later the men and women’s teams were competing in the Thai tournament.

“After seeing, first hand, what great community spirit can be created while playing GAA abroad, Patrick and I wanted to bring that community feel to others in Cambodia,” says Ryan, who enjoyed a short-lived Gaelic football career in her youth before rekindling her passion after moving to the UAE in 2016, playing in Middle East leagues.

“We both benefited hugely joining our respective GAA teams abroad and wanted to allow others living away from home access to a welcoming club.”

After launching their recruitment drive, Cairde Khmer rounded off 2017 with 60 members, spanning a range of nationalities, including Cambodian, Irish, Canadian and Japanese. Wall says the aim this year is to double membership, with 25 percent of players being Khmer.

Culligan adds, “As a club, our future goals are to get involved in the Cambodian community as much as possible and to empower Khmer people, especially women, to get involved in sport.”

The club is also working with local schools, with the aim of training 200 students in the sport. “This is the first GAA team in Cambodia, and we really want to get the local community involved,” says Wall. “Gaelic football is a real community sport and that’s what we want to promote.”

It was Cambodian Tam Sreylark’s first training session. The previous week the 24-year-old had just watched the others practice. A week later she was back, this time throwing herself into the sport.

“I was a bit too scared to play because I don’t like sports at all,” she says. “I knew I needed the exercise so came to watch and run around the pitch on my own while they were training. They asked me to join so I thought I’d try the next week. I’ve never played anything like this before and I’ll return; it was a lot of fun.”

Cairde Khmer has secured sponsors, including The Mad Monkey and Irish charity Scoop Foundation, which has been building schools in Cambodia since 2008. Andy Sweeney, Scoop founder and CEO, says, “We now want to introduce the sport into the rural schools we have built in Cambodia and get GAA to be one of the number one sports in schools.”

With the game fully on, the Cambodian Gaelic football push is already reaping the rewards, with Cambodia gearing up to host its inaugural tournament on Mar. 3 at ISPP. This will see teams from Thailand and Vietnam take part in men and women’s matches. The country’s first hurling game – another of Ireland’s national sports – will take place at an exhibition match.

Player Peter Downey, who was the team’s top scorer at the Bangkok tournament and played for Bishopstown in Ireland, says, “It’s good craic, good fitness, as well as a great way to meet new people; it’s a real community game.”

I may well have gone into the training session apprehensive but I came out invigorated, and hoping that the old adage, practice makes perfect is true. I guess I’ll find out in the coming weeks.

Training takes place in Phnom Penh every Wednesday at 7pm and in Siem Reap every Sunday and Thursday at 6pm. New members are welcome. For information, follow Cairde Khmer GAA Club – Cambodia on Facebook.