The Khmer Rouge and a savage blow to Cambodian football

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

“Every province had a football team back then and we’d play home and away formats, not like today; there were of course teams in Phnom Penh, but also in Sihanoukville, Battambang and other places.

“During the period of Sihanouk (the time roughly from the middle of the last century until 1970) the management was very good. We had all we could ever ask for and often more, equipment and plentiful food, and if you played well in the league then the next year you’d end up in the national team. But then if you played poorly you’d be finished. At least you knew where you stood!

“During that time –the period from Sihanouk to Lon Nol – there were many big teams, nearly every government ministry or agency were strong, the army, police, the education team, the bank, they were all big teams.

“In the period from Lon Nol’s arrival to complete Khmer Rouge control by 1975, football was still widely popular. But as war started to encroach further and further on the country, the game gradually started to wane.

“Lon Nol brought the national team to start training and playing outside the country and the standard really started to improve at that time but when the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975 football stopped completely.

“From 1975 to 1979 there really was nothing.”

What there was, tragically, was widespread heartache as families were torn asunder and people were butchered on a scale that mankind has rarely seen.

Som Saran was one of the ‘lucky’ ones.

When the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh they divided the city into quadrants and people were expelled in any one of those directions; Som Saran was forced to walk for days on end in the direction of the Vietnamese border.

“When Pol Pot came people couldn't live in Phonm Penh and for me I had to go towards the Vietnam border,” he recalls.

“Some others from the national team were sent to the countryside and forced to work in agriculture under Pol Pot’s policies; the people in charge didn’t care if you were a football player or not.”

For Som Saran though it was football that in all probability saved his life.

Som Saran reflects on a career that might have been

After he reached the border a guard on the Vietnamese side recognised him as a football player and helped arrange safe passage across into Vietnam, where he was to stay and play until 1980.

As he retells the story four decades later it sounds far simpler than it no doubt was.

“I was lucky … if I had stayed inside Cambodia things would have been really bad.

“Most of my teammates died under Pol Pot. Sickness was everywhere and there just wasn’t enough food, this was the reality not just for football players but for everybody.”

Som Saran was there again as the national team reconvened in 1980 – and would later go on to briefly coach the side – yet it was a bittersweet experience, with the best years of his career stolen from him.

But he is still thankful to be one of the lucky ones amongst his teammates to have survived the Khmer Rouge.

“When we met again, from that group which played the last match before Pol Pot there were only a few left, just six players still alive.”

As he sips from his tea at the small café, he looks outside to the busy street and sums things up.

“This was the end of Cambodian football as we knew it.”

Photos: Supplied