First Women’s Aussie Rules Footy Team Triumphs in Spirit

When the Cambodian Apsa­ras’ newest recruit lobbed a lopsided kick laughably far from the goal, one of the players, Koun Sreylak, stopped by to correct her form.

“Hold it like this,” Ms. Sreylak instructed, holding the egg-shaped football vertically and kicking it in a perfect arch. Six weeks ago, Ms. Sreylak and many of her teammates had never seen an Australian rules football game, let alone played the sport. Now, they’re landing behinds and goals like old hands, and helping new players perfect their moves.

Cambodian Apsaras players run through a line of fans ahead of their match with the Vietnam Gaels in Phnom Penh on Saturday. (Steve Porte)

Cambodia’s first female Australian rules football team made sporting history on Saturday when they played the first Australian Football League (AFL) international women’s game in Asia, taking on Vietnam on the home field in Phnom Penh. The game at the International School of Phnom Penh brought together women of nine different nationalities.

When the team formed last month, just one player had any experience with the game—which is similar to rugby and known by fans as footy—captain Hannah Slaughter, a 26-year-old from Australia.

Some of the expatriates, such as Emily Marques, 38, turned up out of loyalty to their friend and Apsaras’ coach Carla Mason, 41.

But the first training session also found a lot of enthusiasm among Cambodian women. A bus of 18, who all caught the footy bug from one of the men’s team players, pulled into the field on the first day of training.

“Every single person who’s been to any training keeps on going,” Ms. Marques said. “It’s been phenomenal from the first moment.”

Currently, the Apsaras number about 40 members. Many of the Cambodian players are linked to the charity “A New Day Cambodia,” which provides shelter, food and education for impoverished children and teenagers in Phnom Penh.

Khin Neat, 26, was introduced to footy through her boyfriend, who plays for the Cambodia Eagles, the established men’s team.

After the men’s teammates and coaches convinced her to give it a kick, Ms. Neat first sprinted onto the field last year for an AFL Asian Championships women’s exhibition game in Ho Chi Minh City, one of four women representing Cambodia.

The Cambodian Apsaras face off against Vietnam Gaels in Phnom Penh on Saturday. (Steve Porte)

Popularity of women’s AFL is skyrocketing in Australia, with total women’s participation increasing by 19 percent in a single year, and women’s club participation up by 56 percent, according to AFL statistics.

Cambodia is one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to tap into the women’s league, but Paul Hurford, president of the Cambodian Eagles AFL Club, said he expected the popularity to jump within the year.

“I think the fact that there’s teams here and showing them playing will spark some interest in other countries in at least attempting to start a women’s league, and we’ll see what happens from there,” Mr. Hurford said.

Ms. Mason speculates that the sport fills a gap in activities in Phnom Penh. There are plenty of places to dine, chat, drink and party, but women have few outlets to exercise, work as a team and succeed as they do in group sports.

The Apsaras—named after a beautiful female spirit of the cloud and water in Hindu and Buddhist mythology—are all in pursuit of one goal: a robust, empowering, all-girls team sport.

“That was so great I’m gonna cry,” Ms. Slaughter shouted after a player snatched a ball out of the air and then kicked a six-point goal.

The Apsaras lost their first match on Saturday, by a score of 25-6, to the Vietnam Gaels, a team of Gaelic footballers who switched to footy for the meet.

But when Ms. Sreylak, one of the team’s youngest players, scored the Apsaras’ single goal, the crowd exploded into applause. Ms. Mason said she shed a tear.

“Everyone tries,” Ms. Mason said. “There’s this team element that these girls are feeling and you can see it in their faces, like they’ve never been in something like this. It’s incredible.”

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