Plong Pich Akara has proudly risen to become one of the first Cambodian women referees to obtain an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) licence after building up a strong track record in the field.
Akara is a FIFA International Referee Member for Cambodia and referee of more than 10 years, leading 100 national games and more than 20 international tournaments. In a recent interview with Kiripost, the 28-year old native of Takhmao City said she’s hinging on her dream to be a referee at the FIFA World Cup.
“I’ve become a referee with an AFC licence and, in the future, I want to be a Cambodian referee who can lead a World Cup tournament,” she said. “I don’t know whether I can reach my goal or not, but I will try my best.”
Akara earned her AFC licence in February 2023 and joined FIFA as a referee a year earlier. She is now urging all sponsors in Cambodia to support women's football and women referees because opportunities in sports for women are weak, compared to men’s games.
This has led some women athletes and officials to leave football. “Women’s games have only a few fans to support them, and some referees and footballers are leaving football,” Akara noted.
She also raised concerns for some women referees who can only lead women’s matches, a lack of opportunities to improve their ability and there are only a few women tournaments.
Since Akara is already a FIFA referee, she can lead tournaments in ASEAN countries and, currently as part of the AFC, 47 countries in Asia. She also not only holds the title of one of the first female Cambodian referees, she is also the only AFC representative for Cambodia as there is no male referee representing the country on the international stage yet.
Akara has set her goal to continue to improve herself and other women who love and are interested in sports, saying she will be willing to share her experiences and advise them. She added that she especially wants to see more women referees in the sport.
Akara studied as a physical teacher at the National Institute of Physical Education and Sport (NIPES) from 2015 to 2017. After graduating, she moved to teach at a highschool in Siem Reap for five years. Then she moved to work with the Kandal Provincial Department of Education, Youth and Sport.
Akara said that the path to become a national and international referee was far from easy. She added that in around 2013 to 2014, she had many examinations in sports, especially physical sports. She earned the highest scores among other students.
When her teachers created a subject called the 100-metre sprint, she always secured the highest score because of her ability to run very fast. When her coach saw her ability to run, he advised her to join competitions with other high schools in Kandal province. Akara went on to triumph as a champion.
After she passed several steps in the sport, a provincial governor selected her to join a running tournament in Kampot in 2014 along with other athletes from 24 provinces. She came seventh out of 25 provinces and cities.
She added that besides her ability with football and running, she is also able in volleyball and short distance speed. She added that she is also good at Sepak Takraw.
“The first time I joined a football match in Phnom Penh, I saw women referees who managed and led the match. I felt surprised because I had never seen that before. After that, I recognized that one day, I can also become a referee,” she recalled of the tournament in 2014.
In that same year, she said she had found her direction to become a woman referee and decided to be trained at Bati Football Training Center (BFTC) in Takeo province.
There are many factors that motivated Akara to become a referee. She said, “First is the stereotype that while people always say women cannot do anything as men, especially physical work including sports. So, I wanted to show those people that women are strong and flexible in athletics.”
She said that women can also lead the game when people open their minds and hearts to accept them. Women have learned and trained, especially because they always do fitness checks before the competition as men.
“I believed in myself, I’m strong and knowledgeable about the game rules too. Since I was young until now, there are only a few women referees on football pitches because many girls don’t believe in themselves even though they love sport. So I work to encourage them to leave their comfort zone.”
Akara said that her teacher also told her that the country didn’t have any woman referees to lead international matches then. So at that time, she committed to one day become the first woman to represent her country.
She started to train herself even more and studied the techniques of international referees on social media, how they led the games smoothly and how they could watch over 22 football players with just two eyes.
Akara said that she faced several challenges, both internal and external. She said that she was initially concerned that referees need strong bodies and full energy because they manage the whole game alone under sunlight and sometimes on rainy days.
“When I first joined to be a referee, I had to pass three physical tests including low, medium, and high checks. Each day, I had to train more and more by running about 3 to 4 km alone. In that period, I also failed these tests because they had different conditions.”
Eventually with perseverance, Akara passed and led many games, especially Cambodian men's football matches for the Under-15 and Under-18 teams.
However, when leading the first game in the men’s tournament, Akara said that many people looked at her and criticised her because they didn’t believe she would do well with her petite body build.
She sometimes heard bad words from coaches and athletics when she gave their teams a penalty and gave other sides chances to score goals with free kicks and corner kicks. At the same time, she received many complaints from another referee who was in a higher position than her.
She cried alone after the match ended, but remained strong and moved on because she knew that she had more to learn and that other referees struggled like her, she said with emotion.
“Being a referee can be hard. When their teams win the game, they always admire their athletes, but sometimes, when their team loses, they complain to the referee about corruption, technical errors, and weak control,” Akara said.
She added that the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Women's Championship 2022 between Indonesia and Malaysia, which was hosted in the Philippines, was a difficult match on the field because she has only recently passed and was selected to be a FIFA member.
She received complaints because she missed some faults by players which were made by each side while they didn’t have VAR.
She added that after she made that mistake and many fans criticised her, she learned a valuable lesson. Therefore, she would like to encourage all Cambodian women who want to become referees to work hard, especially physically.