Michael Ike Nwaodika decided he’d have to leave home to jumpstart his professional football career.
After three seasons playing in his native Nigeria, Nwaodika hooked up with an agent who took him to Vietnam in 2005, but he couldn’t find any teams willing to take him on. So he decided to try his luck in Cambodia, where he quickly signed on with the Khemara Football Club.
In doing so, Nwaodika, 23, became one of the first foreign football players to join a Cambodian Premier League team.
“At the time I came here, it was me and one Cameroon guy,” said Nwaodika, who recently signed on with the NagaCorp Football Club.
But things have changed since then, with five of the league’s eight teams currently employing African players out on the pitch, according to Football Federation of Cambodia Vice President Keo Sarin.
Foreign footballers were first allowed into the league for the 2006 season, Keo Sarin said, adding that there are now 16 foreign players hailing from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and the Congo. Each team can have no more than five foreign players, and no team can field more than three at any one time, Keo Sarin added.
Nwaodika and other African players said that Cambodia is definitely a country new to football, but they believe it will mature in the years to come.
“Cambodians, they can play football, but they need more encouragement and support,” Nwaodika said. “They have a lot of talented players.”
FFC President and National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha said the decision to allow foreign players was made in the hopes of pushing that maturation process forward both financially and athletically.
“We want to have more support from the public,” he said. “Our sponsors will only sponsor us if there is interest from the audience.”
Sao Sokha added that the presence of foreigners in the league will help improve upon the talents of Cambodian players.
“In Vietnam, because they allow a lot of foreign players to play in their leagues, they have become strong,” he said.
Cambodian coaches and players said they hope that their foreign teammates will impart that strength to them and their clubs.
Police Major General Hul Sakada, coach of the Interior Ministry-affiliated Lions Squad Football Club, signed three Nigerian players last month to bolster his team of police officers and students. He said that he has seen improvements already in his team’s performance.
“My team, they have not so much experience, but since we joined with the foreign players we play very differently,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress.”
NagaCorp midfielder Ieng Saknida, 28, said that the introduction of African players would do a lot to improve the performance of Cambodian players.
“I think they can help us improve our capacity a lot,” he said. “They have helped increase the quality of our offense-we have more self confidence,” he added.
His teammate, midfielder Tong Sotho, 27, agreed.
“When there are more foreigners and they are strong, it increases the level [of play]…. If we just play with the same people, it isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
But African players said that the Cambodian Premier League is seen more as a way to launch their own careers.
“I came to Southeast Asia just to start here before moving on,” Nwaodika said. “My dream is to go to Europe [to play].”
Ernest Dipita, 21, of Cameroon said that he also hopes to play for a major team in Europe, but for now he’s doing all he can to get his start. He ventured to Thailand last year to play for a premier league team there. It was while there that he was recruited by the NagaCorp club.
But while players wait for their big break, they have to deal with the realities of clubs that tend to lack funding.
Lam Chiny, secretary-general of the NagaCorp club, said his team’s three foreign players get paid between $200 to $400 per month and are also provided free accommodation and food-not exactly European payment figures, but extravagant compared to what some other clubs can offer.
Hul Sakada said his Lions club gets very little funding from the Interior Ministry, so he can only offer his three Nigerian players between $60 to $100 per month and a discount on their visas. Still, that is considerably more than the $25 Cambodian players on his team take home each month.
“Finances have been a problem, but I know that with anything you have to start somewhere,” said Lions player Friday Nwakuna, 21, of Nigeria.
African players also felt that they have been embraced by their teammates and fans far more rapidly than they had anticipated.
“Honestly, I am happier than in Thailand,” Dipita said. “All of [the people] are so friendly-I didn’t expect that.”
But their arrival has not left some officials and at least one team with some concerns.
The RCAF Football Club has banned the use of foreign players on its squad, team coach Suong Phirum said.
“It is to show that the nation’s soldiers are Khmer,” he said.
Scott O’Donnell, coach of the Cambodian national team, said that the introduction of foreign players is a positive thing in general, but teams need to make sure that they are really getting quality players.
“A lot of foreign players may be stronger and faster but they are not necessarily better,” he said, adding that other Southeast Asian countries have fallen into the trap of hiring foreign players just to have foreign players.
“I think the clubs need to do their homework, and get players that they think are better than the local players,” O’Donnell said.
But ask Hul Sakada, and he’ll tell you that he likes his chances now that he has Nigerian players on his side.
“This Saturday we play Phnom Penh Empire [Football Club]. They beat us last time we faced them, but now we have foreign players of our own,” he said.