The world of Cambodian football tends to be a broad tapestry of personalities, from coaches to players, grass roots advocates and those simply passionate about the game. Tith Sovannara, known by friends as Na Ra ticks all of the above boxes.
I first met Na Ra back in 2021 quite literally at my first ever Cambodian football match. At the time he was working for the Blue Warriors – the ultra fan club of Visakha FC. As quite literally the only barang there as a fan I was interviewed by Blue Warriors TV.
This would lead to a friendship, a brief flirtation with me supporting the club and most interestingly me learning the Tith Sovannara story.
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From rage to riches – Tith Sovannara
Born in the former slum, Boeung Kak, chances to progress were few for the people that lived there. Na Ra by his own admission could not even read or write at the time, but his fortunes would begin to change when he met the non-government organization (NGO) EYC.
“They taught me to read and write, but also gave me a chance to shine at football. I was initially spotted by ISF and started to play for them, before being called up for Cambodia at multiple youth levels from Under 13 to Under 16”.
Indeed at one point he was considered one of the most promising players in Cambodia and as a teen appeared in the nations second-tier, but alas this was pre Cambodian Premier League and the financial risks of becoming a footballer outweighed those of getting a “real job”.
“While I did want to play professionally I still also had to provide for my family, so instead with the help of EYC became a football coach. Quite simply I felt I had to do this in order to guarantee myself a regular income. Back then and even now young Cambodian players earn very little”.
This would lead Na Ra to roles at Visakha FC where he again coached numerous levels including the Under 18, as well as women’s teams.
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Play To Progress
It was also during this time that Tith Sovannara decided he wanted to put something back into the community and help others like himself that had grown up in the slums. This led to the formation of how own NGO, Play To Progress.
“Our aim was really simple to go into the slums and give kids a chance to play football, frisbee whatever, but also to help give free education, but also issues related to the environment and sexual equality. Yes we were football based, but we wanted to help the community as a whole”.
At this point he was so well known that he was offered the chance to go to America on a ‘Micheal Johnson Young Leader Award,’ but sadly and quite ironically was denied a visa due to his economic status, the very reason he had started the charity in the first place.
And it was not just here where things went wrong, with Na Ra also having issues with his “business partners”, issues which finally led to the collapse of the organization.
“When I started this I was young and not very well educated. In essence I was screwed around by the people that were supposed to help me, which led to us having to close down. We did though achieve a lot and if I were to do it again at least I can say that I am wiser now”.
Tith Sovannara and the Blue Warriors
Never one to be kept down his next move saw hired as the Fan Club Manager of Visakha FC, meaning the so called Blue Warriors. And it was obviously a fair success with the supporters now noted as being some of the loudest and best raveling fans throughout Cambodia. Watching though and being involved are two different things, which led Na Ra to his next move.
In 2022 Na Ra and other members of the supporters club founded the Blue Warriors Futsal team – Futsal being the 5 a side indoor version of soccer and one of the fastest growing sports within the Kingdom.
To read about the Blue Warriors Futsal Club click here
Formed with ideals of “revolutionizing the sport” and in his words being the “Visakha of futsal”, the club were immediately successful winning the 2022 Tiger Cup and qualifying for continental competition, but it was here when disaster fell. For some reason Visakha, despite being by far the richest club in the country simply stopped funding the club, something Na Ra still does not fully understand.
“We literally won the first competition we entered with the opinion and impression that we would be supported by our parent club. In our mind we were doing this for Visakha. It takes just $20-30,000 a year to run a successful futsal team, a relative drop in the ocean for Visakha, but they dropped out and the club not only couldn’t compete at a continental level, but had to fold”.
Was he bitter though? “Not really, but after many years working for the club I was certainly disappointed. But I am not the first, nor will I be the last person to leave the club like this”.
What next for Tith Sovannara?
Yet despite the setbacks Na Ra still has a lot of ambitions when it comes to his footballing career, particularly with regards to charity work, as well as his passion for futsal with him adding “Charity wise I would love to restart Play To Progress, Yes we had problems, but overall we can be proud of what we achieved. Knowing what I know now I feel I can attract the right partners and really make a difference for underprivileged kids from the same background as me. I might not be rich, but I certainly no longer live in a slum”.
But it was through futsal where Na Ra’s true dreams lay, with him finally adding “Futsal is a really inclusive game and Cambodia could become a regional powerhouse. For me personally I want to restart my club, independently of the Blue Warriors and be a futsal manager. I think my playing days have passed now, but I still have a lot to offer the game. All we need is partners and sponsors”.
So, if you happen to be a Futsal club in need of a manager, or a philanthropist looking to do some good, then look no further than Tith Sovannara.
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