A late Afghanistan goal in Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier broke the hearts of Cambodian football fans as their side went down 1-0 in front of a packed Olympic Stadium despite a reinvigorated performance after Thursday’s humiliating defeat to Singapore.
The return of under-23 players from the SEA Games—along with a complete change in the team’s defensive line—made for a more organized, assured and creative display by the national side, which was unlucky to go away empty handed.
Fears of a drop in interest among fans after last week’s 4-0 drubbing were proved unfounded as the capacity crowd roared from the off.
Cambodia instantly looked more dangerous than against Singapore, and Keo Sokpheang could have opened the scoring in the first five minutes but sliced a left-footed shot wide. Khuon Loboravy then leapt above his marker to head a lofted cross, only to see it saved by Fardeen Kohistani in the Afghan goal.
Despite their opponents looking more composed on the ball, Cambodia often looked more fluid in attack with captain Kouch Sokumpheak threatening to unlock the Afghan defense on numerous occasions.
Anticipation in the crowd grew throughout the game as the Cambodian defense repeatedly blocked their opponents’ attempts to break through despite the best efforts of Faysal Shayesteh, who caused problems from the right-hand side.
Pressure grew on the Cambodian net after the break and a goal line scramble in the 63rd minute was celebrated like a goal by fans once it was cleared from danger.
The game took a turn in the home side’s favor with the introduction of fan favorite Chan Vathanaka in the 70th minute to screams around the stadium. With one of his first touches, the 21-year-old broke through the Afghan defense and lobbed the ball over the oncoming keeper, only to see it hit the inside of the post and bounce out.
Having received a lifeline, Afghanistan pushed forward and silenced the home fans in the 86th minute as Mustafa Zazai saw his shot ricochet off a defender, back onto his shin and into the net. Despite a late onslaught headed by Vathanaka, the final whistle blew to end the game 1-0.
Muth Mony, a 20-year-old fan from Phnom Penh, said he was encouraged by his team’s performance despite the scoreline but rued the national team’s inability to hold out until the final whistle.
“If the Cambodian team played well like this, they would not have lost so disastrously to Singapore,” he said. “I do feel disappointed with this result because…I have watched many games and I see we tend to make mistakes in the last minutes.”
Cambodia’s next World Cup qualifier is in September against Japan, which is ranked 126 places ahead in the FIFA World Rankings and were held to a shock 0-0 draw at home against Singapore on Tuesday night.