Overcoming Adversity to Champion Blind Football

Visually impaired Mey Punlok has overcome many challenges in life, but determination and hard work have seen him achieve his dream of attending school and representing his country on the international stage playing blind football
Cambodia blind football team. Kiripost/supplied
Cambodia blind football team. Kiripost/supplied

Born blind, Mey Punlok has shown strong commitment to overcome many hurdles to get to where he is today - representing Cambodia on the national blind football team. His first challenge was getting into education after he was unable to register at his village primary school in Takeo due to his disability.

Punlok, 26, said, “When I was a child, I was educated late at about 10- to 12-years-old because the primary school didn’t support me. They found it was hard when they didn’t have a good system for people with disabilities, especially blind people,” Punlok told Kiripost in an interview.

Despite being rejected by his village primary school, Punlok was later able to enrol at the New Family Centre, moving to Phnom Penh to study. He is now a Year 3 student at the University of Cambodia, majoring in International Relations.

At the time, his family were reluctant to let Punlok relocate to the capital city alone. They feared he would be unable to study as well as people without disabilities and he would struggle to navigate the city without a guide.

Mey Punlok
Mey Punlok

However, eventually they relented and Punlok embarked on what was to become a life-changing experience. While in Grade 9, with support from the Centre, he was introduced to football. In cooperation with USAID, key players were selected to train under the guidance of foreign coaches, and Punlok was one of them.

“I had to prioritise my schedule between training and studying because I expected my life would change if I tried hard from that day. I wanted my family, including some people who have discriminated against me, to see the ability of a blind person,” he said, expressing sadness.

During the interview, Punlok said this was a good move as many people questioned his ability and he was able to prove them wrong. They would ask how is it possible he can play football with no sight, does he worry about getting injured during matches, and what his motivation is to win when fully-abled players struggle?

“To show improvement, in late 2020, I created one team (under 10 members), or you can call it a club, called Blind New Generation. This provides a space for people with disabilities to advocate and bring themselves to the public with their abilities and knowledge, we especially included sport too,” he said.

Representing the nation

Punlok was dealt with another incredible opportunity after playing, training and testing the sport alongside professional coaches, with support from New Family and USAID - the chance to trial to represent Cambodia in the 12th ASEAN Para Games. He was selected to be on the team.

“We missed a chance when Vietnam was the host of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in 2022. They didn’t include the ASEAN Para Games and we were disappointed because we couldn't show our ability as sport players,” he said.

He noted that blind football is an important competition in the ASEAN Para Games, and the protocol during matches is strict. When playing, footballers must wear stickers to block both eyes and an eye mask. The final step required is for athletes to wear black glasses.

He said, “Players must follow the rules and they are really strict because they need fairness for everyone between both sides during the match. All football players aren't allowed to touch these tools [stickers, masks and glasses] because they confirm that even though they’re blind people, they have different levels. To avoid any problems happening, when players touch anything wrong, the judges will stop those players.”

Ponlok said energy is important among athletes because the sport requires strength, quick flexibility and smartness to control the ball, play with confidence and deliver strong counter attacks.

He confirmed, “In the ASEAN Para Games, we felt more confident because the Sport Federation uses a bell ball, so we easily notice where the ball goes. However, in our previous training, we just played with a normal ball. It was really challenging when we didn’t hear any sounds to take the ball from our competitors. Sometimes, we got injured because we couldn’t see and made a few mistakes with each other.”

The key reasons to play while facing challenges

Punlok said there are many key objectives that cause him to pause continuing with the sport as sometimes it conflicts with his university study. However, what motivates him is that since he was a child, this has been his dream - but a dream with no hope.

He recalls being laughed at and criticised by people when he shared his dream. But despite this, he recognised his talents and appreciated being a Cambodian person, so we wanted to help society with his own ability.

He added, “I want to bring good achievements for my country. Even now, I don’t know if I will win or lose, but participation in these big events is a good chance to show my deep love and support to encourage people to be open-hearted on what we have and can do on both the local and international stages. This part seems funny, but it’s true.”

Punlok said he started training with the national team alongside eight members in January, with challenges immediately arising. He said transportation was stressful for him because he had to book a PassApp or Grab to drive him to the stadium everyday. During the training, he covered expenses for food and drink on his own, despite receiving monthly financial support.

He said, “Per day, I spent nearly $10, at least $5 on transportation. But I would share transport with other team members so we could share the cost. At the same time, we also have a $250 monthly stipend, but normally they do not pay at regular times. I hope our Sport Federation will facilitate us in the next event.

“I would suggest to the Sport Federation to bring and create more competitions for people with disabilities because if we only join the ASEAN Para Games, we will not be able to improve the skills that we have trained for.”