“We made the semi-finals of the 1972 Asian Cup! In the early 70s we beat Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam. We didn’t just win games, we were winning tournaments,” Kowith Kret said. “Then the Khmer Rouge brutally destroyed the peaceful Cambodia of our youth and locked us in hell.” 

Kret is 62. Between 1975 and 1979 he was detained in a Khmer Rouge labour camp. “Memories of happiness or football would flicker, maybe,” he went on. “I was eating insects, leaves, anything to survive. We worked every daylight hour, every day, on empty stomachs. Football no longer existed. We watched our families executed or die of hunger.”

Football in Cambodia had enjoyed a successful heyday in the 60s and early 70s before the coming of Pol Pot. He took power as the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. They forcibly evacuated the capital within 48 hours, vocationally repurposing everyone to agriculture with immediate effect. They abolished education, religion and money. The country rewound to Year Zero, a cold reboot of Cambodians as collective farmers at gunpoint with insufficient rations, seven-day working weeks and severe reprisals for even imagined infractions. By 1979, an estimated 1.7million had been killed. 

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to promote an agrarian utopia,” Kret said. “Everything was focused on food production. We would work in the rice fields 14 hours a day, fall down at night, begin again next morning. It was the opposite of utopia, starving and tortured.”

The Khmer Rouge shut down anything deemed nonessential. Football contributed nothing productive to the new order, so it disappeared. The Communist Party executed teachers, doctors and government officials — anyone who could be considered of the educated or privileged class, athletes included. They didn’t even need explicitly to forbid sport. Public, arbitrary killings kept workers in a state of perpetual fear of the consequences of disobeying Angkar, the faceless entity that dictated Khmer Rouge policy. 

“They tried to erase our memories,” said Kret, “erase the history of our country.”

Kret had followed Cambodian football from childhood, but sport didn’t exist in hell.

The national team had reached the semi-finals of the 1972 Asian Cup in Thailand. They’d won the 1972 South Vietnam Independence Cup and the 1973 President’s Cup in Korea. By 1979, however, only five of that side were still alive. Almost all records of the team, like that of Cambodian culture in general, were destroyed.

In the early 1970s in Phnom Penh, after the 1970 coup that ushered in the newly named Khmer Republic, and with it a firm US alliance, Kret played football at the Tuol Svay Prêy High School. The school won the city championship five years running, practising on the fields at the back. In 1975, with the capital deserted, the Khmer Rouge made the school into the city’s main torture and detention centre, a ‘re-education’ facility called Security Prison 21 or S-21. The infamous mass graves of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek lie on the outskirts of town, but the former football fields became a killing zone of their own. Now the Tuol Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum, it serves as one of the country’s grisliest and most poignant memorials. Of the almost 20,000 detained at the facility, almost all ended up at Choeung Ek.

During the 1972 Asian Cup, Kret and his friends saw the headlines in the papers and listened to accounts over the radio. They knew the war in Vietnam increasingly encroached into their country — “We heard the B-52 bombings” — but temporarily rejoiced in the national team’s performances. They ended up losing a third-place play-off to the host nation Thailand on penalties.

“It was publicised and announced on radio, the winning run of the Cambodian team. It was the Asian Cup!” said Kret. “It was a big deal. We didn’t have any kind of strong teams in other athletic activity. China, of course, dominated almost every version of sport — gymnastics, swimming. But Cambodia, football was the only sport people could participate in.”

Forced from Phnom Penh, Kret moved first to the east toward Prêy Veng, but his father was recognised as a state official, taken for indoctrination and reeducation, most likely at S-21, and killed. The Khmer Rouge sent the younger Kret west to a Battambang work collective. He did whatever he could to survive. Even if he didn’t collapse every sundown, football would have drawn attention as seditious, anti-communist behaviour. He intentionally washed infrequently and hid when he slept, to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

“I was so sick, almost dying, but somehow I survived. I had to go around stealing some of the food from village leaders, because everything had to belong to the commune. They had many gardens, plantations to subsidise the kitchen site. At night I had to steal sweet potatoes and stuff like that to supplement my meagre diet. Sometimes I used to go around and use leaves as part of a vegetable soup — just anything to fill up the stomach. One time I got caught, beaten and tortured.”

Kret did not die, but 43 members of his family did — parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. 

The previous decades, by comparison, seemed idyllic. In the 50s and 60s, the Cambodian ruler Prince Sihanouk would regularly take the pitch for his palace team against the Army side. Kids played barefoot on any patch of ground available, at the gnarled roots of Angkor Wat itself. Even Pol Pot grew up idolising Pelé in Phnom Penh. Ironically, Pol Pot first began practising the bicycle kick while attending a privileged school for the elite in Phnom Penh. He and his teammates would reportedly break out brass knuckles they fashioned in metalworking class for any brawls that broke out against rough opposing teams.

Before gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia began competing internationally in 1933. In the 40s Sihanouk created the Indochina Football Cup with King Bo Đi of Vietnam and the governor of Indochina, Jean Decoux, an early competition between Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, Central Vietnam and South Vietnam. Cambodia joined Fifa officially in 1956. The 1972 Asian Cup was the peak, even though the civil war against the Khmer Rouge had been running for four years. After taking power, they dismissed the possibility of taking part in the 1976 Asian Cup. Cambodia have reached the third phase of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, the furthest they’ve been since 1972, which suggests at least some sort of recovery may be underway. Yet the few survivors of the 1972 team remain largely unknown to the current generation, even if supporters from the time remember.

The star winger Pen Phath, now 67, was nicknamed Puos Keng Kang, ‘Snake Man’, for his quick, serpentine movement with the ball. For Pen, Cambodia’s rise through the 60s was largely the result of Sihanouk’s funding. “In the 60s,” he said, “I was lucky to have great coaches of international level, recognised in the world — Yugoslav, Hungarian, Czech. These coaches changed every two years and made our team very strong.

“All the players were very technical. Everybody knew what their teammates would do at any time. An automatic game. Players would make fake runs and then the player who had the ball dribbled, destabilising the defenders. We worked very hard in training on the positioning of the players on the field. Every training session we were preparing for all the situations of the game. We had a collective intelligence game. Like a war plan for defending and attacking, we memorised these plans.

“Sihanouk and the coaches brought very good teams from Europe, Crvena Zvezda, the Prague sides Sparta and Slavia, the Yugoslavia national team of Josip Skoblar, the national teams of the USSR and other Communist nations. Many top-level teams came to Cambodia to play friendlies. It’s like what the Thai Federation is doing now by inviting Barcelona and Manchester United.”

Pen has fond memories of the 1972 Asian Cup semi-final against the eventual champions Iran. “I was on a cloud because it was the first time I played at this advanced stage of the Asian Cup,” he said. “The whole team, everybody was discovering competition at this level, so it was an exciting game. There were about 60,000 fans watching the match, very noisy. The atmosphere was crazy.” They had never performed on such a big stage before the tournament, nor would they again.

“Thai fans were calling my name and my number, supporting me despite the fact that I played for the other team,” he said. “‘Pen Phath, Pen Phath, Pen Phath…’ It was crazy.” The Thai club Rajpracha signed him soon after. “I was playing the best football of my life, that’s why I was able to leave and play in Thailand. The match I played against Thailand [the third-place play-off] saved my life.” 

Pen excelled in his first season and was named in the Asia Select XI. However, the club owner confiscated his passport to fend off interest from foreign clubs and prevent him returning to Cambodia. In 1972, he played for a Bangkok XI friendly against the Brazilian side Santos, for whom Pelé was still playing. After the match, the three-time World Cup winner asked to meet him. They shook hands and Pelé compared Pen’s style of play to Brazil legend Garrincha. 

“At first they wanted the Thailand national team against Santos, but they changed the name to include me because I wasn’t Thai,” Pen explained. “I was Cambodian and would not switch. At the end of the match, the reporters asked Pelé what he thought about the team and he said, ‘There was a player that I appreciated during the match who impressed me, it was the number 7,’ and the number 7 was me, so I was very flattered.

“My memories about this match against Santos with Pelé, I was happy because I could give passes for my teammates to score. Pelé was exceptional, despite his age [he was 32]  — he was a bit older than me. I learned a lot by watching him on the field, became aware of many skills by watching him play.” 

Good memories clash with the bad. “My friends died. The newspapers in Thailand were talking about me like I was Pelé and the team was very strong, but I felt really bad. I lost all my friends that I played with for 10 years, ate lunch with every day for 10 years.”

Had Pen’s move to Rajpracha not happened, had the unscrupulous Thai club owner not seized his passport, Pen too might have died alongside his countrymen.

The former cyclo [bicycle taxi] driver Kun Kak, strong and youthful for his 62 years, lived southeast of Phnom Penh near the Vietnam border before the Khmer Rouge took power. “Pen Phath was an amazing player,” he said. “I remember watching him play very, very well. At that time, there was nothing like TV or Facebook these days, but he was very famous.

“But there were many political situations in the early 70s. People were worried sick about their families and the war that was being waged in Cambodia. I stayed in Takeo province near where the US bombed the Vietnamese in Cambodia from 1969 till August 1973, so what I and my family really cared about was our security and that of our relatives. We forgot about football quite a bit at that time, but still the Asian Cup stood out as special.”

Kret similarly remembers the star performers of the 1972 team: “We had the great goalkeeper Lim Sak, the great striker Douer Sokhom who scored four goals. Pen Phath. We had a great team.” 

Neither Sak nor Sokhom survived the Khmer Rouge regime. The list of survivors reads only Pen, Som Saran, Lors Salakhan, Slayman Salim and the reserve goalkeeper Ouk Sareth.

Som Saran, now 69, who captained the 1972 side, fled to Vietnam in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. He played in the top flight for Tây Ninh and married a fellow Cambodian refugee. “Vietnam gave me the gifts of safety and life,” he said. “I played against the great Vietnamese players we had played against with the national team. The country saved my family, and I am so thankful to the people of Vietnam.

“In Pol Pot’s time there was no football. No sport. Our teammates worked in the rice fields, hiding their identities, digging ditches, claiming to be cyclo drivers or other modest jobs. If recognised as an athlete or famous person, you got killed. I returned in 1980. I was so, so sad for everyone who died. We didn’t know who lived and who died. We tried to rebuild Cambodian football from the ashes.”

Like Pen, Som remembered the support the team enjoyed at the Ministry of Education football centre and the well-disciplined style born of repetition and intelligent positioning. “In the 1960s, the prince provided everything we could want as athletes — training facilities, housing, all we needed for food,” recalled Som. “He loved football and I believe we made him proud with our football. The difference before and after Pol Pot was absolute.”

Som returned to try to revive Cambodian football, although his efforts mainly amounted to keeping it running. Som resumed playing from 1980 until 1994, an impressively long career that outlasted the Khmer Rouge regime. There was a lack of infrastructure and a scarcity of food, exacerbated by a landscape littered with land mines. The Khmer Rouge continued to lay mines and stage rebel incursions until 1998. Food and survival naturally trumped sports and leisure. Undernourishment and land mines continue to be of paramount concern to this day. 

Under the North Vietnamese ‘liberation’ forces that occupied the country from 1979 to 1989, Cambodia had a scratch national team that played occasional one-off matches against clubs from the Soviet bloc, but no true internationals. In 1977, Pen had finally secured his passport and passage to a club in France, where he still lives. 

Salakhan, Slayman and Ouk remained in Cambodia. They all moved into coaching in varying capacities, along with Sam-El Mitt, a national team player from the 60s who focused on youth development. Som coached the national team in the early 90s and again in 2004. Slayman was an assistant coach with the national side in the 2000s, as well as coaching the provincial side Koh Kong. Ouk, who like Som rejoined the Cambodia team between 1982 and 1985, revived sport throughout Siem Reap province, home of the world heritage site of  Angkor Wat. Salakhan managed several club sides in the 2000s and 2010s and had his own brief stint as national team manager. Pen brought a French Khmer XI to train and play in 2010 and 2012, some of whose players now play on the national team. 

In the 1960s, when Prince Sihanouk still played for his palace team, he invested heavily in football. A lover of football, nightlife and the saxophone, Sihanouk coveted a grand spectacle, one that would soon arrive in the form of an alternative global games to the Olympics and for which he commissioned a 60,000 capacity stadium in Phnom Penh.

The Games of the New Emerging Forces (Ganefo) emerged after Indonesia refused to issue visas for Israel and Taiwan to compete at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. The Indonesian leader Sukarno risked a backlash from the West better to position the nation with China, the USSR and the Middle East.

The International Olympic Committee banned Indonesia in response. Sukarno then came up with Ganefo as an alternative, splinter-faction Olympics, practically daring the IOC to do something about it. The IOC took swift action, decreeing that any athletes who participated in the outlaw games disqualified themselves from Olympic participation. The Soviet Union and Japan sent second-tier athletes, with Japan in particular wary of jeopardising the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

“At that time, Sihanouk wanted to promote football as a sport project and sport as a Cambodia project,” said Kret. “He advocated very hard for the country to get the First Asian Ganefo in Cambodia. So that’s why in Phnom Penh, which was an incredible city then, we built a big stadium for football, the Olympic Stadium, except there was no Olympics. He wanted to get something really big in Cambodia, he got it and we built a stadium for that.”

The Olympic Stadium was built in 1964 for Ganefo, but the impact of the games was mostly negative. Previously chosen to host the 1963 South East Asian Games (SEA Games), Phnom Penh saw its selection stripped for supporting Ganefo, with the 1963 SEA Games later cancelled altogether. The inaugural Ganefo in Indonesia in November 1963 would have taken the bulk of the attention anyway but Cambodia’s minor participation cost them heavily.

Sihanouk had a genuine interest in football, but he also had an agenda to promote the country’s international prestige. He absorbed the loss of the SEA Games and lobbied to host the first Asian Ganefo games. Sihanouk prevailed and secured the confusingly named event, to be held in 1966. It was limited to participants from Asia, whereas the Indonesian event was global, featuring 46 countries, mostly socialist, from Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and the Soviet bloc.

On top of losing the 1963 SEA Games, Cambodia did not make the cut for the football at the 1963 Ganefo tournament, which was won by Egypt (under the name of United Arab Republic) who defeated North Korea in the final on the toss of a coin following a 1-1 draw. North Korea went on to reach the quarter-final of the 1966 World Cup in England but first they had to qualify. To do that they needed a venue, not an easy thing to find for a Communist nation whose relations with much of the rest of the world were strained. Sihanouk eventually volunteered, offering Phnom Penh’s new Olympic stadium. It could be argued that Cambodia’s most significant contribution to the history of football did not feature the Cambodia national team.

Phnom Penh hosted the final Asian/African/Oceanian qualifying matches for the 1966 World Cup in late November 1965. It was supposed to be a four-way battle for one place between the favourites, Australia, South Korea, South Africa and North Korea, but South Africa were banned for their refusal to select a racially mixed side while South Korea withdrew after the games were shifted from Japan. Sihanouk instructed half the crowd to cheer for North Korea and half for Australia but the games were less evenly balanced: North Korea won the first 6-1 and the second 3-1. 

Both sides then played friendlies against their hosts. With Douer, Pen and Lim all involved, Cambodia managed a 0-0 draw against Australia on 26 November 1965, with a respectable 3-0 loss to North Korea two days later.

At the Phnom Penh Ganefo, Cambodia proved themselves good hosts, if not a global football power. They hammered North Yemen and Palestine but finished well outside the medals as North Korea won gold. Sihanouk finally had his big splash as Cambodia claimed 62 other medals, though. 

Ben Kosal, who is now 65, played for the Under-18 Cambodia national side in the 60s and trained at the Ministry of Education football centre, which “amply took care of necessities”. He was also a ball boy for the first matches at the Olympic Stadium.

Kosal cited Sieng Dara as his favourite player of the 60s. Dara was at his peak when Pen joined the national set-up as a teenager. “We called him ‘Pelé d’Asie’,” he said, “the Pelé of Asia. He was built like Maradona, short and stocky. When I was a young boy, you know, I just loved him, and all the country loved him. He was that good.” Sieng Dara scored two goals in a notable 3-1 away victory over India on 18 November 1967, a prestigious scalp for Cambodia at the time. “He was the best football player here in the 60s,” said Kosal. “He was so famous, Dara Dara, just like Maradona.”

In the 1960s, while Pol Pol played football at a privileged school for the future elite in Phnom Penh, the junior college student Kosal played football against one of Prince Sihanouk’s sons. The prince’s team arrived fully outfitted, while Kosal’s team played barefoot. Studs or no, Kosal knew to take it easy on the royal team.

“The prince, they’re rich! They’re high society, so they come to play, they got their bus, they got their own stuff, their doctor, all their shoes. We didn’t have any shoes to wear at junior college,” Kosal said. “I was just so nervous. You’re scared, so when you play, you don’t want to touch him, you can’t. If he got the ball, he got the ball; he want to dribble around, okay, not gonna tackle him.”

The press and information attaché for the Khmer Republic embassy, Abdul Gaffar Peang-Meth, gave a scathing interview to the New York Times on 16 April 1975, the day before the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. He condemned the United States for abandoning Cambodia after exploiting the country for its own purposes during the Vietnam War. 

“The United States used us,” he said. “You marched into our country, you promised us aid, you encouraged us to keep fighting, you told us you were our friends, and now you drop us. A prostitute at least gets paid. For us, our lives, our blood, our country, is ended because we helped the United States when it wanted to get its troops out. So your sons and daughters are home and our people are left to die.”

Phnom Penh fell the day the New York Times ran the article. Peang-Meth had played football barefoot as a child. “I was born and raised in the suburb of Phnom Penh at Russey-keo. Behind our old thatched-hut primary school with red flame trees in the courtyard, my classmates and I played soccer at free time in an open field. I played football in my bare feet with village boys as I was growing up. My friends and I liked to spend the weekend playing football in a field next to a big pond just off the railway line from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It was how we chose to spend our weekend. We picked up logs from near the track to mark goals for each side and we threw our shirts on the ground to mark the field. And like that, we played. If we had only four or five boys on each side it didn’t matter, it was the play, the fun, and the camaraderie that was great. Until the next weekend, as long as our fathers didn’t insist on school or housework.

“I went whenever possible to the Old Stadium to watch the FARK (Khmer Royal Armed Forces) football team play. Once, some friends of my father’s went to see the game and I was more than happy to tag along — I rode my old bicycle as they rode their scooters. I remember eating a piece of watermelon, thanks to one of the old folks who bought slices from a vendor. I didn’t care about a Coca Cola. I watched the game happily as people clapped and cheered.”

When Cambodia rejoined the global fray for its first international tournament in 20 years, they limped through group stage of the 1995 SEA Games in Thailand, where they’d reached their peak in 1972. In a farcical return to Indonesia, they let in 10 goals without reply. Thailand sliced them apart in a subsequent 9-0 mauling, while Vietnam breezed to a 4-0 win. The most absurd game, however, came last.

In the final group match, Malaysia had scored nine by the 83rd minute. The Malaysian striker Affendi Julaihi then slammed a shot against the post. His momentum carried him over the goal line, he became ensnared in the netting and the goal posts collapsed under his weight. Anuar Abu Bakar, who had already scored a hat-trick by the 70th minute, connected with the rebound but saw the goal disallowed because officials declared that by the time he hit his shot, the goal no longer existed. It took 50 minutes for the posts to be mended and, in the end, Malaysia couldn’t get to double figures.

Rebuilding from the destruction of the Khmer Rouge has taken decades. Kun Kak attributes it to the necessary focus on survival and the inevitable effects of grief. “The fact that many people had just come back from war held football back in the 80s and 90s. People lost family members, hope and a reason to live. They saw so much pain and so needed to take a break and perhaps rebuild their family and lives from scratch. They were toughest moments in everyone’s life, coming out of hell. People needed to think about their stomach before anything else.”

“After the war, many countries ditched us,” said Kun, “and didn’t care about us. We were on our own. I think young people these days need to get back into sport. It’s a way for men to see each other’s strength, not through war or weapons.”

After an all-time low in August 2014, when they sank to 201st out of 209 teams in the Fifa rankings, in March 2015 Cambodia reached the second round of World Cup qualifying for the first time. They lost all eight matches in their group against Japan, Syria, Singapore and Afghanistan, scoring only once, but the crowd supported the team enthusiastically, overjoyed to see high-class football in Phnom Penh again. Brass instruments, drums and colossally large Cambodian flags enlivened the crowd, which far exceeded capacity at all four home matches.

It felt a little like old times. “The atmosphere in the 60s and 70s, the Olympic Stadium never had an empty seat,” remembered Pen. “People climbed onto the roof and stood — the whole stadium, every space, was full. The stadium was very, very noisy, shouting, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ so when I was playing, I couldn’t hear anything but shouting. During international matches, when the national anthem played, all the stadium sang and the players too. It was very patriotic.” 

Kun particularly remembered “the smell of boiled corn, bananas as people were eating them while watching the football match”. 

Kann Kall, the Cambodian director of world literacy foundation Room to Read, survived the Khmer Rouge work camps. “It was impossible for football to survive,” he said.” If you look at Cambodian history – war from late 69 to 1975, killing fields from 75 to 79. From 79 to 89, we were occupied by Vietnamese and afterwards the Khmer Rouge continued to attack from over the border until 1998. Everything was tension and mistrust, people without food. If you don’t have enough food to eat, you don’t invest in sport.” 

Much like Kret, Kann played football until the Khmer Rouge sent him to the work collectives. “When I was young, as a student, I played football,” he said. “When the Khmer Rouge came, everything changed, like the sun went black.’

He is unsurprised by the lack of awareness of the 1972 team. “Most of the youth in Cambodia, with almost 70% of the population under 30, don’t know their history,” he said. “They don’t know any the names of the players from the 72 team, or even what they achieved. So much, lost and forgotten.”

For those who do remember, progress to the Asian Cup group stage qualifying brings it all full circle. Progress in the World Cup qualifiers for the first time represents a massive resurgence. In a July 2016 friendly, Cambodia defeated Singapore for the first time in 44 years, 2-1. Many hope that success in football can translate into further pride in Cambodia and further recovery.

“When you look at the philosophy of football, or any type of sport that requires teamwork, everyone has a role and you have to play as a unity of people,” said Kret. “Football is a metaphor for change in Cambodia. When you have a group of people, you want to win the game, you have to work very hard. Everyone has to contribute something in order to achieve their goal, winning, or to become a champion.” 

Grassroots football gains recruits in the provinces and also at hour-rental turf pitches that started popping up all over Phnom Penh about five years ago. One just 100 yards from the entrance of the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek attracts dozens of young players, an uneasy juxtaposition of Cambodian football’s darkest past and future hopes.

Pol Pot’s regime and the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge derailed Cambodian football for four decades. Recent victories and participation in tournaments demonstrate a national team and a national sport in recovery. No one expects Cambodia to reach the semi-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, but the country has clawed itself back to relevance in football. The country has also earned the hosting rights for the 2023 SEA Games, 60 years after the first one got stripped from them.

“I think that Cambodians can maintain their hope,” said Kun, “see the light of success from down the road and keep up their determination. We have centuries of glorious victories and our ancestors have left us amazing things. We can put this small dot on the map again if we work hard to bring success and prosperity to our country. It involves a lot of hard work and right thinking.”