Wheat Restaurant 7, HKL 6
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I told Mr. Sokmetrey I played soccer. Sokmetrey is the Marketing Director for Hattha Kaksekar Ltd. (HKL), one of Kiva’s newest microfinance partners in Cambodia, and my main contact in the organization. After picking me up at Phnom Penh International Airport on Thursday after twenty hours of travel, Sokmetrey treated me to lunch at a noodle house. Over steaming bowls of Khmer curry we fell into a discussion about Cambodian sports. I mentioned I enjoyed playing soccer, and he immediately invited me to play with his team on Saturday morning.
“I’ll pick you up at 7:30,” he said.
Pretty early, especially for someone still on West Coast time, but what better way to meet the locals?
7:30 Saturday came way too early, but excitement was enough to rouse me. Sokmetrey and a few friends picked me up on their motos. Being my first moto ride, it was a tense, white-knuckle twenty minutes for me as we wove through Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic. I had no clue where we were going, and after a half hour we were well outside the city. People stared at the strange barang clinging desperately to the back of the moto as we puttered deeper into the countryside. Turning randomly onto a dirt road, Sokmetrey led us past rice paddies and saffron-robed monks until we came upon a pristine soccer field in the middle of nowhere. After introductions Sokmetrey dumped a pile of white clothes at my feet.
“You can pick your uniform.”
Uniforms? Seriously? I thought this was going to be a casual pickup game at some local Phnom Penh park, not a semi-pro league match way out in the provinces. I chose No. 9 (“like Ronaldo” they joked), shorts that didn’t look too ridiculous, and a battered pair of soccer boots a size too small. The jersey had the HKL logo emblazoned on it, and it dawned on me that I was playing for my MFI. I asked what team we were playing, hoping it was some other rival MFI like Maxima or Credit, but I was disappointed when it turned out to be the curiously named “Wheat Restaurant.”
After a very brief warm-up the referee blew the whistle and the game started. They must’ve thought I was some sort of prodigy since I started at striker, but I soon found myself making all sorts of mistakes. Outclassed, out of position most of the time and constantly getting burned by quicker opponents, I was more of a liability than anything. The style of play was faster and less physical than I was accustomed to. Wheat Restaurant jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead thanks to a few crucial defensive blunders and had us down 5-1 at halftime. By then I was a mess. Jetlagged and out of shape, angry blisters on my heels and toes, dizzy and dehydrated in the increasing heat, I must’ve been a disappointment. HKL should have known that Kiva wasn’t sending over a soccer star. No one seemed to care though, and despite my various ailments I was having a great time. I hadn’t played a game this meaningful since 8th grade. As I sat to begin the second half, HKL came out aggressive and stormed back to tie it at 5-5. Their last meeting with Wheat Restaurant had ended with a draw, so they were anxious to pull out a victory. After drinking two bottles of water I had sufficient strength to return for the last 10 minutes as a desperation sub on defense. Coincidentally, Wheat Restaurant scored two late goals before HKL made things interesting with a score in the final minute. But that dreaded whistle finally blew, and despite the outcome spirits were high after the match. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to avenge my performance some future Saturday, but I need to hit the gym first./>