Standing 150cm tall and weighing about 45kg after a big lunch, fine art student Phat Srey Mich might be one of the most feared women in Asia.
Most feared women on a football pitch, that is.
Srey Mich, 25, is one of a team of Cambodian women that will travel to Singapore in November to contest the first ever AFL Asian Cup – where they’ll take on regional rivals at Australia’s national sport: Aussie Rules, a chaotic contact sport played in Australia or wherever else Australians decide to play it.
Smiling assassins, little giants, the mosquito squad, Cambodia’s lady footballers – the majority of them a tight-knit group that grew up in Phnom Penh’s notorious rubbish dump communities – have developed a reputation for taking down giants in Australia’s most popular sport.
And Srey Mich, one of the first locals to sign up for Asia’s first women’s footy team in 2016, sets the standards: attacking lynchpin and chief sniper in a hit squad that surprised everyone, including their own coaches.
“When I played football, I was a quiet, polite player,” Srey Mich said before the first training session of season 2024 on a recent Thursday night.
“But AFL is different. When the ball is loose, you have to prove yourself,” she said, giggling at the image she was creating of herself. “You need to find a nasty streak, a little bit of monster.”
Since their first match against the Vietnam Swans, the Cambodians, proudly displaying the name of the team – the Apsaras – on their jerseys, have been ferocious. And since inception, they’ve been competitive, making the semi-finals at the Asian Championships in 2023 against mostly Australian and Irish women with a lifetime’s experience in contact sport.
The Apsaras are ruthless, but always play in good spirits. Players are commonly seen joking, apologising or helping victims to their feet.
“Some of them you would hardly have heard a word from and then they’re out there smashing girls twice their size,” says Hannah Slaughter, an Australian sports teacher in Phnom Penh and key architect of the women’s team.
“We were not sure how they would handle it, to be honest, playing against the bigger, stronger athletes, but they blew us away. They’re absolutely fearless. It’s amazing to watch,” she adds.
What’s now known as the Cambodian Eagles Football Club was initially founded as bit of fun for Australians living in Phnom Penh – a tradition around the world, akin to the Irish and their pubs, giving expats reason for weekends away in neighbouring countries.
The Eagles always had a small Cambodian contingent but the introduction of the women’s team opened the floodgates for a whole new wave of local players.
These days, a Thursday night training session might be attended by 50 or 60 players, the majority of them Cambodian.
The club’s evolution dovetailed with the AFL launching its professional women’s league in Australia in 2017 and then turning its focus outward in a bid to develop the game around the world.
With a grant from AFL Asia, the Eagles launched their Kick2Kick programme in 2022, where senior players, including Srey Mich, run regular Aussie Rules training sessions with students at a range of international schools and organisations, earning a small salary that allows her the freedom to study.
An original Apsara, Srey Mich says she will play until she is “gone to the heavens”.
She loves ushering in new waves of talent. And she still remembers, after a nervous start to her eight-year love affair with footy, the moment the penny dropped and she realised the nature of the battle.
It was in that 2017 match against Vietnam. The Swans were dominating their fledgling opponents when one of their Irish players levelled Apsaras star Koun Sreylak.
“I felt like, ohhh, she really hit my sister,” Srey Mich recalls. “I wanted to cry.”
Instead, she went after the opponent and rattled her with two textbook tackles, laying the foundations for the Apsaras to blaze a trail all the way to Singapore in November.
“I felt comfortable,” Srey Mich says of those first big collisions. “I wasn’t scared anymore.”
“All we ever hear about is that we are small. But we are fighters. We want to show the world how good we are. We are small but strong, fast and friendly – and a fair team.”