Once a source of national pride—and the spectacle sport of choice for royalty and regular folk alike—the Cambodian national football team has been mired in years of disappointment and defeats.
From the team’s heyday in the early 1970s, through eradication during the Khmer Rouge regime, to a public assessment from the head of the national program in 2003 that the team was “lazy” and “parties too much,” the Cambodian national side has weathered a course that parallels that of the nation itself.
“Cambodians lost their pride during the wars of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. We need to regain that,” said Cambodian Football Federation President Khek Ravy. “Nothing in normal society existed during the Pol Pot years. Many of our players were killed. But now we have a young, rebuilding nation and we have taken a first step to become a strong football country again.
“I just don’t know how long the first step will take.”
The national side went 0-10 in its last three regional tournaments. Since 2003 the national side has been outscored 6-55.
Players bemoan what they consider a paltry monthly salary and lack of food.
The newly named national coach doesn’t speak Khmer, and the previous national coach described the team’s 2004 Tiger Cup performance in Vietnam as “shameful.”
Although later cleared by a football federation investigation, nine players were investigated over allegations they phoned in bets against their own team at the 2003 Tiger Cup. The rumors prompted Prum Bunyi, cabinet chief of the National Olympic Committee, to publicly ridicule the team and suggest that it be suspended from international competition.
The negative publicity has led many Cambodians to distrust the commitment of their own team.
“The spectators are always deceived by our performance,” Khek Ravy said. “When they see us go out and lose to Vietnam 9-1 or Thailand 8-0 it leads them to think that our players are not defending the flag of Cambodia, but that is not the case.”
The online encyclopedia Wikipedia lists Cambodia as “currently one of the weakest teams in the world.”
Luckily, this is the realm of sport
—a place where hope springs eternal, patience is required and fans savor every hint of possible improvement.
That football is still alive, if not completely well, in Cambodia is readily apparent. The proof can be seen in the faces of the youths that gather along Sisowath Quay to play games in the rain and the jostling throngs of bettors who crowd Internet cafes to wager on English Premier League matches.
Cambodians love football. And recently, with encouragement from the royal family, oversight by the Olympic Committee and $250,000 in annual assistance from Federation Internationale de Football Association, the national program has been given another chance.
The history of football in Cambodia—its past, present and future
—may be best explained by the experiences of three vastly different men, each of whom starts his day in a vastly different setting.
The Old School
Som Saran, ex-coach of the national team and star of the 1972 Asian Cup squad, begins his mornings in the small office he shares with a colleague inside the Ministry of Social Affairs. Here, the flinty 56-year-old deputy director of the Veteran’s Pensions Department leans back and talks football.
“The national team now has good players but they lack time to practice,” he said. “They also lack management and financial support. I believe in management. If it is good, the team is good.”
Som Saran reaches into his desk and withdraws a small, dog-eared notebook. Pasted to its pages are old news clippings and faded pictures of national teams past.
“I started to play in 1966,” Som Saran said. “From 1968 until the Pol Pot regime, I was on the national team. In the past our football players trusted in themselves. We were very strong. Thailand and Vietnam dared not play against us.”
Raised in Kompong Cham town, Som Saran moved to Phnom Penh to train as a professional footballer at the age of 16. He recalls fondly his days at the Ministry of Education’s football center where the national team was housed, fed and trained.
“Before national team players were selected to represent the country, they were required to train with the team for seven to nine months. If they were not good, the coach made another selection,” he said. “We lacked nothing. We were very valuable. We had more than enough [food and equipment]. Sometimes we would even sell our old equipment. We would eat until we had our fill. It was more than enough, unlike today. They are not fed enough.”
Som Saran’s notebook is a tattered gallery of former national stars. He coos proudly over the old images, and humbly downplays his 24 years of involvement with the national program.
“I was not really famous. At the time the famous national player was goalkeeper Lim Lak. He was very famous. Everyone in Asia knew him. Besides him there was Doeuk Sokhom and Sieng Dara. They were famous from the Sihanouk time until the Lon Nol regime.”
According to Sam Saran, the rampant gambling that accompanies football in Asia never affected his era of national play. He bristles at the thought. Such athletes “sell the nation,” he said.
“There was no corruption at the time…. If someone was known to be corrupt, they would be kicked off the team and no other team would accept them. They dared not.”
Although Cambodia garnered many regional accolades throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is the 1972 national side that is considered the greatest. The team, anchored by Som Saran in the mid-field, earned a fourth place finish in the Asian Cup. As political chaos erupted in the following years, it would be the last time Cambodia competed in the Asian Cup.
“From 1973 on, the performance decreased,” Som Saran said. “In Pol Pot’s time there was no football. I think there was no sports at all. Players had to work in the fields like everyone else.”
This is where the pages of Som Saran’s scrapbook take on the patina of painful regret. He explains that, of the 22 players he trained with as a young man, only five are still alive.
“When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975, I fled to Vietnam,” he explained. “I didn’t want to play in Vietnam, I only wanted to escape the Khmer Rouge.”
He played professionally in Vietnam until 1980. When he returned, he found that any remnants of a national football program had disappeared. “There weren’t even shoes to play football with.”
Still, Som Saran rejoined the national team in 1980 and continued as a player until 1994. He was named national coach in 2004.
“I feel very regretful about the time I led the national team at the Tiger Cup in Vietnam,” he said of the winless 2004 tournament. “It was very shameful for the nation. “
These days Som Saran plays regularly with his friends at the dirt field at Boeng Trabek High School.
“I played for a long time,” Som Saran said as he once again closed his faded book of memories. “I played longer than the others.”
New Coach, New Direction
Since he was named national coach in early August, Scott O’Donell has been waking up most days at 6 am to work out alongside his players at Paddy’s Sports Centre in Phnom Penh.
Amid the sweat, spit buckets and shadow boxers, the 38-year-old Australian focuses on his first objective: to improve the strength and fitness of the team that the official Web site of the Tiger Cup consistently refers to as the “minnows” of the Asean Football Federation.
So far O’Donell, a 14-year professional player and most recently coach of Singapore’s Geyleng United, has been confident, diligent and realistic.
“I’m under no illusions,” he said in an interview. “Everyone that I have talked to has told me that this is a big challenge—and that’s exactly what it is. They took a big gamble on me.”
Handpicked for the job by his longtime friend Khek Ravy and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, O’ Donell brings some intriguing qualifications to the position.
First, there’s the name recognition. O’Donell is an analyst for ESPN/Star sports television who will continue his commentary on international football while heading the Cambodian team. Secondly, the Web site indianfootball.com even claims O’Donell is known by “millions of fans.”
O’Donell and his wife Margaret have two adopted Cambodian daughters—Emma, 7, and Ellie, 6.
O’Donell was raised in Sydney’s working-class Ermington neighborhood. His father was a timber yard manager who played professional rugby for the Balmain Tigers.
Self-described as an average, steady defender who was disciplined but not “blessed with skill,” O’Donell spent five years playing in Australia for the Parramatta Eagles. Here, he came under the tutelage of Argentinean coach Raul Blanco. “He was the best coach I ever played for,” O’Donell said. “He was a strict disciplinarian. As a player you don’t appreciate it, but in hindsight he had our respect. He had no favorites. He treated everyone the same.”
Later O’Donell played in Kuala Lumpur for Ken Shellito, a former player and manager for Chelsea of the English Premier League. “I wasn’t a star player by any means. As a foreign player going into another country, you have to work hard to adapt and be accepted. If the local players see you working hard, they respect that.”
Having witnessed incidents of match-fixing before in his career in Asia, O’Donell said that even rumors of corruption will not be tolerated in his program.
“My first responsibility is to get some respectability back into the national team,” he said. “If we can go out there and make it hard for some teams to win, and get the boys believing in themselves, then we can start talking about achieving some things. The short-term goal is to get rid of this losing culture. The long-term goal is for Cambodia to host the SEA Games in 2011.”
Impeccably dressed and slowly sipping coffee, CFF President Khek Ravy sat in the 5-star InterContinental Hotel on a recent morning and reflected on sponsorships, sustainable development and the nation’s biggest football fan—retired King Norodom Sihanouk.
“The Father King is passionate about football,” he said. “He knows everything that goes on around football—the players, the structure of leadership.”
“Our Prime Minister [Hun Sen] and Prince Ranariddh are also passionate about football. The new King [Norodom Sihamoni] has made a lot of comments about football. All these people remember every detail about the games. They all want football.”
With this mandate in mind, Khek Ravy has been personally involved in practically every recent decision concerning football in Cambodia. He brokered an assistance program with FIFA in 2002 that included $400,000 for the construction of a new training facility outside Phnom Penh and the first of its annual allotments of $250,000.
“In 1997 and 1998 FIFA made a lot of money from the World Cup. They decided to contribute to some member countries—$1 million to each association every four years,” he said, adding that the grant is audited for FIFA annually by the KPMG accounting firm.
In 2002 Khek Ravy was central in the formation of Cambodia’s Premier League. In 2003 he ordered an executive committee be formed to investigate betting at the SEA Games.
“Allegations came out after the last SEA Games and the Tiger Cup. The CFF did many investigations. The allegations remained, they just could not be substantiated,” he said. “As the president of the CFF, I backed the players and the management teams. They were not involved in the selling of matches.”
Most recently, he presented O’Donell’s curriculum vitae to Olympic Committee Chairman Prince Ranariddh who approved the nomination two hours later, he said.
“What I told Scott was rebuild the confidence of the Cambodian players,” he said. “Scott is our first professional coach. It is his target to improve the physical capability of every player and to rearrange the players on the national team roster.”
According to Khek Ravy, a former secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce, Cambodia has established a grassroots football movement that has expanded the player base. It is his hope that provincial and corporate leagues will increasingly “feed” the premier league. The elite players in the top league will then be selected to the national team.
Looking further, he envisions a day when football leagues are financed by sponsorships, advertising and ticket sales-as they are in some developed countries. At present, most national team players supplement their $35 monthly salary by playing for privately sponsored teams or working side jobs.
“The FIFA experts have told us that it takes 10 years of sustainable development to succeed in international football,” he said. “Development takes time.”
Meanwhile, across the nation, football is still the sport of choice. Children still gather in parks and fields and alleys to kick the ball around. Adults still congregate to cheer on-and wager on-their favorite teams.
After all, the 2005 SEA Games begin in Manila in November-and everyone loves an underdog.