With thousands of fans expected to fill the stands at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium Thursday afternoon to watch Cambodia kick off its improbable bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in a match against Macau, coach Lee Tae-hoon isn’t sure his side is ready.
“Cambodia doesn’t have many high-level players,” Mr. Lee said in an interview last week.
“Anytime Cambodian players lose the concentration, it’s a problem,” the South Korean coach added.
“This is Cambodian culture because they start football too late for many players, so they haven’t conditioned themselves and the thinking is too slow.”
Following a slim 2-1 victory in a warm-up match against domestic champions Phnom Penh Crown on Friday, Mr. Lee urged players to respect their national “duty” and to stay away from nightclubs.
Stepping away from the post-game pep talk, the coach said he was also concerned about a lack of scouting on the team’s upcoming opponent.
“I worry because we don’t know the Macau system. I looked on YouTube, but it doesn’t have Macau data,” he said, adding that he worried the opposite was true for the other side.
“I think already they know our system because there are many YouTube videos of us playing, so I just worry about that.”
The national side, currently sandwiched between the Soloman Islands and Chinese Taipei at number 184 out of 209 countries in FIFA’s world rankings, was matched last month against Macau—188 on the list—in a pool of the 12 lowest-ranked teams in the Asian Football Confederation.
Mr. Lee returned to coach Cambodia’s national team in July 2013, following a short hiatus after his first stint from 2010 to 2012, when he oversaw the team’s last World Cup qualifiers.
Cambodia’s journey to the 2014 World Cup ended almost three years before the world’s best faced off in Brazil. After beating Laos 4-2 in the first of two matches, Cambodia fell to pieces in Vientiane, losing 6-2. Disappointment at the team’s poor performance was mixed with rumors that the match was fixed.
Khiev Sameth, vice president of the Football Federation of Cambodia, said Wednesday that he remained concerned about the potential for match-fixing, but that any players suspected of throwing games would be punished.
“It is a worry in general and it’s not just our country, but it’s also a big worry across the world,” Mr. Sameth said.
“I hope this won’t happen as the players need their pride,” he added.
Kouch Sokumpheak, a 28-year-old star in the country’s premier C-League who has been an integral part of the national team for almost a decade, said he understood his coach’s criticism of some players for the fact that they “think slowly,” but that his teammates could not afford to focus solely on football.
“Khmer players have small salaries, so if they only think about football, their families’ living conditions will suffer,” he said, adding a poorly developed youth football scene was the main reason Cambodia lags behind its regional competition.
“I recognize that most Cambodian players still lack concentration and think slowly, as most start playing football when they are older and have less experience,” he said.
Khuon Laboravy, a 27-year-old striker on the national side, said he was “95 percent sure” that Cambodia would beat Macau today, if previous matches against the country were any indication. But he worried Macau might have recruited outside its borders to put together a more competitive squad.
“I’ve played the Macau team four times already, but I don’t know how they play now,” he said, adding that Cambodia was victorious in three of those matches. “If they still have the old players, we are not really worried…but we are afraid they may use foreign players.”
If Cambodia does manage to top Macau in their two-match competition, with a second game set to take place in Macau on Tuesday, they would move to the second round of qualifiers in June alongside 34 other Asian nations.
Sim Meng Hai—one of the national side’s most avid fans, who plans to be in the stands for today’s game with a giant Cambodian flag and drums in tow—said he expected a victory today, thanks in part to fans acting as “the 12th player on the field.”
But Mr. Meng Hai was not expecting a trip to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“I have little hope that Cambodia will go through to the World Cup soon,” he said. “Because even Thailand and Vietnam, who are better at football than us, have no chance.”