Scott McIntyre speaks to Kipson Atuheire in a one-on-one interview to find out how his dream of being a footballer has taken him to Cambodia.
Walking into Siem Reap Stadium on the final match-day of the Cambodian League last weekend, Golden Boot-chasing forward Kipson Atuheire told FOX Sports Asia that he was going to bag a hat-trick to ensure he won the award.
It wasn’t quite the frenzy that was promised but in the end he did score his side’s only goal as title aspirants Nagaworld fell to a surprise 2-1 defeat to Cambodia Tiger in the northern city, that was indeed enough to secure the Ugandan-born forward the league’s top scorer award.
Cambodian football receives scant coverage inside the nation itself – on the day that FOX Sports Asia visited there was only one local reporter present – let alone in a broader regional context, so it’s understandable that Atuheire’s impressive goal-scoring ways have gone unnoticed.
Even less discussed is the well-trodden path of starry-eyed foreign hopeful who leaves family and friends to move across the world in pursuit of his dreams that the 24-year-old is currently on.
Born in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to a father who hailed from Rwanda, it was in the paternal homeland where his footballing journey began before an agent spotted his talent and offered him the chance to quite literally travel to the other side of the world with the offer of a professional contract.
Just as Uganda and Rwanda receive little attention in Southeast Asia so it was that a young Atuheire had to furiously research his new home, even if there was slightly left-field impression of Cambodia that he had from his childhood.
“As a child I used to watch some movies that were filmed in Cambodia so I knew a little about the country but only from those movies; I didn’t know anything about football or if they had a professional league, but when I came here I found that football was developing day by day and that was interesting and I’m loving it,” he revealed.
The Rwandan U-17 & U-20 youth international also took immediately to the local game, scoring a dozen goals in half a season with Svay Rieng following his mid-year move in 2015 before improving on that number as he finished as the league’s third-highest scorer last year.
A world away from the ACL final last week, tomorrow is the final day of league action in Cambodia and I had a chance to see one of those clubs building for the future in @cambodian_tiger doing good work in Siem Reap. pic.twitter.com/DIk9RCqfY8
— Scott McIntyre (@mcintinhos) December 1, 2017
That prompted the move to the nation’s richest club, Nagaworld, this season where he’s continued to plunder the goals at better than a goal every other match but, as he told FOX Sports Asia, the going hasn’t always been easy.
Atuheire explained: “In terms of the adjustments I had to face, it wasn’t always easy with some things off the pitch but the food is not so different to Uganda because I can get what I like at the supermarket and prepare that at home.
“The main challenge that I’ve met in was the language barrier because most people don’t speak English but football is one language and we can always communicate.
“In terms of on the pitch, since I started scoring the defenders are paying much more attention to me and trying to stop me however they can so I know that I need to keep working hard, but it’s also important to make sure that I continue to listen to the advice of coaches.
Another issue that not just Atuheire but all footballers in Cambodia face is that the football infrastructure in the country is not always what it should be with the Siem Reap pitch – due to be revamped next year – pot-holed in parts with the goalmouth at both ends sandy and rough which, as Atuheire notes, makes playing on the ground very difficult.
“The positive thing is that I’ve seen a real improvement in the standards of coaching since I first arrived in Cambodia,” he added. “The players are starting to get better because there’s a real difference between football in Cambodia and in Africa, where the emphasis is more on physical aspects.
“However, they need to make the pitches better because if you want players to improve on tactical and technical aspects they must have better conditions.
“Some pitches you can’t pass on and you have to play high balls and that affects the kind of football that you should be playing.”
Remarkably it hasn’t stopped the goal-scoring ways of the Rwandan forward who must surely be attracting the attention of bigger clubs across the region with his combination of power, pace, control and finishing – the kind of skills that are in huge demand in other neighbouring leagues where Atuheire admits he’d love to try his hand at.
“I have to balance where is best for my next move but there are some very good leagues in this region with China, Vietnam and Malaysia but sure everyone dreams of playing in Europe and if that chance came it would be amazing and one that I’m ready for.”
All pictures courtesy of Scott McIntyre