When Cambodian national football coach Joachim Fickert wants to check up on his players off the practice field, he doesn’t have far to walk.
Fickert’s office is on the second floor of a small villa on Street 322. Directly below him, the players he has selected for the 2002 World Cup qualifying tournament are living barracks-style, complete with bunk beds and communal kitchen.
“We were using a hotel for a while, but this is cheaper,” Fickert said as he led a visitor through the crowded living quarters. “Plus the kitchen lets us make sure each player gets 4,000 calories daily, a good combination of Khmer food and Western food like spaghetti that builds their strength.”
When it was suggested that this arrangement makes it easier for a coach to be sure his players don’t stay out all night, Fickert said that was not a problem with his young team, whose players average 22 years old.
“We only have four players left from when we played in the World Cup qualifying in 1997,” he said. “And the biggest difference with these young players is that they take responsibility for staying in shape. Even when they are back home, they train very hard and eat like athletes should.”
Fickert’s young team leaves Sunday for Thailand and a week of practice, including two matches against Thai club teams. The Cambodians then go to Sri Lanka, where they will play a friendly match against that country’s national team. A final flight 650 km southwest from Sri Lanka lands them in the Maldive Islands, Cambodia’s first opponents in the elimination tournament that ends 15 months from now when a world champion is crowned in Yokohama, Japan.
Cambodia, currently ranked 172th in the world (out of 203), is in a qualifying group with Maldive Islands, Indonesia and China, and plays home-and-away matches with all three countries.
The match in the Maldives is April 1, and that team will come to Phnom Penh for the return match at Old Stadium on April 15. Cambodia plays in Indonesia April 22 and in China May 20, and hosts Indonesia on April 29 and China on May 6.
The Maldives are made up of about 1,300 coral islands and sandbanks, of which about 200 are inhabited. It was part of the British empire throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and achieved full independence when the last British troops left in 1976. Its population is only 277,000, according to a 1999 estimate.
The Maldives took a terrible beating in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, losing its six matches to Kyrgyzstan, Iran and Syria by a combined margin of 59-0. But by 2000 they managed to defeat India and earn two draws against Sri Lanka and another draw against Bangladesh.
Cambodia earned a 1-1 draw with Indonesia in the 1998 World Cup qualifying, but lost the other five matches by a combined margin of 26-1. More heartening was its performance last November in the Tiger Cup in Thailand, where the team lost matches by one goal to heavily favored squads from Singapore and Malaysia before defeating Laos 3-0 in their final match.
Hok Sochetra, who scored the World Cup goal against Indonesia and three of his country’s four goals at the Tiger Cup, quit the team three weeks ago, choosing his full-time job at Samart over training and traveling with the national team.
“In a way, I’m proud of him,” Fickert said. “His game depended on power more than technique, and now that he’s 27 the power starts to go a little bit.
“More importantly, he took control of his own life. He made the decisions he needed to make to prepare for his future.”
Now the scoring burden falls on strikers Chan Arunreath and Chea Makara, the latter a lanky 20 year old who Fickert says could be his team’s key player. Samel Nasa, Ung Kanyanith and Pok Chanthan are top midfielders.
“He is young and full of energy, and he is fast,” Chan Arunreath says of his fellow striker Chea Makara. “He lacks experience, but he did play in the Tiger Cup.”
Chan Arunreath is a 29-year-old veteran of the last World Cup qualifying tournament. The Svay Rieng province native also sees improvement in his teammates.
“Our technique is the same as the foreign players,” he said. “Our coach is capable and has the same knowledge as other coaches. We learn from practice and we learn from watching international players on cable TV, although the matches are on late at night and we need to go to bed at 10 pm.”
But he said veteran team members are concerned that perhaps the younger players are still a bit green, not having learned all the tricks their coach has to teach them.
A lack of funding also puts team practice time at a premium, Chan Arunreath said.
“We only have two weeks or a month to gather together before international matches because the federation lacks money to assist players and organize training. During training, we only receive [an extra] $5 a day.
And while single players can live on the $100 monthly salary each team member receives, it is not enough for their married teammates who must find jobs outside of football, he said.
Suon Dara is the team’s goalkeeper. “He gave up an unlucky goal against Singapore, and got caught out of position on a free kick against Malaysia,” Fickert said. “But he also made 10-15 good saves. So I’m convinced we can put our trust in him one more time.”
The German-born coach, who worked with African squads in Benin, Rwanda and Congo before coming to Cambodia in 1996, says he can see the improved technical skills in his younger players.
“This is the generation after the war,” Fickert said. “When they were 14, 15, 16 years old, they were playing football, not fighting.
“They switch from defensive to offensive behavior quicker than the older players did. And when the other team pressures them, they maintain control of the ball better.
“Now what we need are two or three
players to become real leaders, what I call personalities on the field. This is a country that needs heroes. And the national team is the engine that can pull the entire national football program forward.,” he said.
Every player on the national squad played a six-month season in the Mobitel Cellcard 2000 League. Fickert said he would like to see that season extended to nine months so his players gain more match experience. On a positive note, he said more than 900 boys around the country are now playing in programs organized by the Cambodia Football Federation.
Fickert said his team’s goal is to win the Maldives Islands matches and to “have an honorable result” against China, currently ranked 77th in the world and a heavy favorite to advance to the next round out of the four-team bracket.
“Our next target is the Southeast Asia games in Malaysia in September,” Fickert said. “I would like to see us reach the semifinals, using the good experience we get during the World Cup.”