Compared with sacred events at such hallowed football shrines as Manchester’s “Old Trafford” or Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, weekend Marlboro League matches at Olympic Stadium are humble affairs.
But to Cambodian sports fans hungry for national athletic glory, the Marlboro League provides a steady diet of football competition that makes up in excitement and spirit what it lacks in glamor and fame.
Now into its third year, the Marlboro League comprises 11 teams competing under the auspices of the Cambodian Football Federation. The league is classed as semi-professional, and most of its players have full-time outside jobs, transforming into athletes only when the weekend arrives and it is time to don jerseys and cleats.
Fan support has remained disappointingly low so far this season, but that’s no surprise given the league’s infancy. It occasionally suffers from play so uneven that games could be mistaken for pick-up schoolyard matches.
It is an entirely different story, however, when the league’s top teams take to the field. Phnom Penh Police “A,” Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and Bodyguards “A” each include players who compete on Cambodia’s national team, which has gained regional respect with surprising recent performances.
Just less than one year ago, the national team muddled through the preliminary qualifying round of World Cup ’98, finishing with a dismal record of one draw and five losses, most of which were one-sided blow-outs. But Cambodia does have a tradition of glory to draw on—the powerful squads which were among the best in Southeast Asia prior to the Khmer Rouge era—and by the time the SEA Games rolled around late last year, the national team had blossomed into a contender.
Cambodia lost two of its matches at the ’97 SEA Games—including a 4-2 loss against tournament champion Thailand—but also won two games. One of those wins was a 4-2 thriller against heavily favored Burma; the other, 4-0 over Brunei.
Moreover, Cambodia’s second loss was an agonizingly close 2-1 defeat at the hands of Singapore, with the winning goal scored during injury time, after the completion of regulation play. A few minutes earlier, with the game still 1-1, a Cambodian attacker fired a shot that actually beat the Singaporean goalkeeper but bounced off the crossbar.
Had Cambodia managed even a draw against Singapore, it would have accomplished the unbelievable—winning a place in the ’97 SEA Games football medal round.
Later this month, the national team will get a chance for revenge, when it travels to Singapore for the first round of the Tiger Cup ’98 tournament, a top Southeast Asian regional football showcase.
Cambodia’s three-team grouping includes Singapore and the Philippines, and the national team needs a first- or second-place showing during the preliminary round to advance to the finals, held in Jakarta in August.
As a result of the national team’s recent success, two of its top performers have been invited to undergo player trials in Hanover, Germany, later this year. If they are successful, striker Ho Sochetra and mid-fielder Hem Samchay will earn a chance to play professional football in Germany’s Division II next year.
The trials were arranged by the national team’s coach, Joachim Fickert, a German national who has led a number of developing-world national squads throughout his career. Cambodian sports officials hired Fickert two years ago.
Hok Sochetra already has achieved a measure of international recognition of his performance, having been named Asian football player of the month last April by the Asian Football Federation, after he scored Cambodia’s lone World Cup ’98 goal in a 1-1 draw with Indonesia.
But Fickert says Hem Samchay is the best all-around player in Cambodia with style reminiscent of Michel Platini, the former French international play-making wizard.
“(Hem Samchay) has always been one of the best in Cambodia,” says Fickert. “He’s an excellent play-maker with a good vision of the game.”
Hok Sochetra and Hem Samchay belong to teams ranked one and two, respectively, in the Marlboro League standings at this point in the season. Hok Sochetra plays for Bodyguard “A,” last year’s Marlboro League champion, while Hem Samchay is a member of 1997 league runner-up Phnom Penh Police “A”.
Seemingly invincible both on paper and on the field, Bodyguards “A” is averaging six goals a game so far this year—while allowing less than one goal per game—amassing a perfect 9-0-0 record, for a total of 27 points.
Teams earn three points for a victory, one point for a draw and none for a loss.
Also called the Bodyguards of the First Prime Minister because of Ung Huot’s sponsorship, Bodyguards “A” is a top contender for an obvious reason—11 of its 18 members play for the national team. As a result of having a sponsor, Bodyguards “A” devote themselves to football full-time during the season.
In addition to Sochetra, who leads all Marlboro League scorers with 27 goals after only six games, Bodyguards “A’s” national team standouts include goalkeeper Nhem Bunthon, a SEA Games star performer who is maintaining an impressive 0.89 goals-against per-game average in Marlboro League play.
Bodyguards “A” have another offensive standout in Nuth Sony, Hok Sochetra’s national team front-line partner, who put the ball into the net six times during the first six games of the year, a performance worth fourth place in the league scoring race.
But Police “A” has nine national team players of its own, and follows its archrivals closely. At of the end of last weekend, Police “A” had a 6-1-0 record, worth 19 points.
In addition to Hem Samchay, Police “A” national team players include forward Lin Noun, whose eight tallies after six games was good for third place in the league scoring race.
Though the 1998 Marlboro League is looking like a deja vu of last year—with Bodyguards “A” and Police “A” ranked one and two, respectively—Fickert believes that Police “A” may well displace its rival for top spot by the end of the season.
“They are the two best teams in the league, with most of the national team players, and they will struggle until one of them wins. The Police “A” have improved their play, and you can say that they are playing good modern football. I think it will be very hard for the Bodyguards “A”.
While there are other Marlboro League teams which have proven to be worth watching this year—including Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, which has five national team members—Cambodian football officials concede that at the bottom end of the scale are a number of teams that have little chance of competing successfully against the top squads.
Among them are some of the teams that originate outside of Phnom Penh, two of which were allowed to join the league after the official schedule was drawn up.
While some sports officials believe that the inclusion of these teams is good for football overall in Cambodia-by generating more interest in the sport throughout the country-other football experts contend that they merely detract from the league’s level of play, and risk alienating fan support.
One sports official, who asked not to be identified, says that some of the league’s lesser teams do not deserve to be on the same field as the top squads. “I think that allowing them to play (in the Marlboro League) is a mistake,” the sports officials says. “You can only improve your performance when your competitors are good, and what some of these teams are playing looks like street football.”
The 1998 Marlboro League will play games this weekend and next weekend, and then break for six weeks starting on March 15, while the 1998 Tiger Cup first round takes place. Marlboro League play resumes April 25, continuing until the start of the playoff on June 25.
During times of play, two league games are played each Saturday and Sunday afternoon at Olympic Stadium. Old Olympic Stadium in northern Phnom Penh hosts one game each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.