Along with millions of cheering Korean football fans this week, there was Prime Minister Hun Sen.
For the first time, the World Cup is taking place in Asia. And Tuesday saw the national football teams of the two host countries, Japan and South Korea, meet with unexpected success on the football pitch. South Korea beat Poland 2-0 and Japan tied Belgium 1-1.
“I hope your team wins the World Cup,” the premier told South Korean Ambassador Lee Won Hyung at a ceremony Wednesday. “It would be good for Asia.”
This month’s World Cup has put Asia on the world’s football map. With improved squads and impressive play, World Cup qualifiers South Korea, Japan and China have shown that Asian teams can be competitive.
The question now is when will the national football team that represents Hun Sen and every other Cambodian be recognized on the world football stage?
Observers would not speculate when asked this week. But it seems clear that without more money and better organization, it will take years before Cambodia appears in a World Cup final.
There are 32 national teams—including teams from smaller, African countries—in the World Cup final, which continues through the end of the month.
“We can see that there is a possibility of a poor country [like Cambodia] qualifying for the World Cup,” Cambodian Football Federation President Khek Ravy said. But Cambodia’s performance in the qualifying round for the World Cup was disappointing last year, with the team finishing with a 0-5-1 record.
That the Cambodian Football Federation is broke is it’s biggest deterrent to success, said Sok Nida, a midfielder for the national team and a World Cup commentator on TV5.
“The football players have no real budget. We have nothing at all,” he said. “Cambodian football players are motodops, or have other jobs to get extra money. This is a big problem. In other countries the governments support their living condition, and provide for their families.”
Training conditions for the national team are also appalling, said coach Joaquim Fickert. “It has taken two years to renovate the Olympic Stadium and…we have to train on the tennis court at [a residential complex].”
However, Fifa, the world football’s governing body, donated $400,000 to the Cambodian Football Federation last year. The money will go toward the construction of a technical and administrative center on 3.3 hectares of land near Pochentong Airport. There will be a practice field surrounded by an office building, a dormitory, cafeteria and a locker room. It is scheduled for completion in November.
Another challenge to the development of Cambodian football is that there is no system in which players can regularly compete with each other in order to improve their skills.
Khek Ravy believes that if a club system is developed, then sponsors will eventually come and deliver the much-needed funds. Right now, companies are not willing to sponsor club teams or international test matches, he said.
Khek Ravy suggested that, Cambosix, the recently opened legal monopoly on football betting, could support a club system in Cambodia. “They do not help develop the sport, they just take money from the Cambodian people and do whatever they want with it. It is scandalous,” he said.
Because there are no resources for a club system, organizing and developing Cambodian football must begin with the school system, Fickert said. The sport must be nurtured at the youth level, just as it has been in Japan and South Korea, he said.
“Even in Cambodia there are talented players,” Fickert said. “The success of Japan and South Korea shows what you can accomplish with hard work. They have developed youth football and now they are world class teams…and their [winning] attracts fans.”
One problem for the national team is its lack of match experience, something else that also requires cash flow. In six months, no international tests or domestic tournaments have been played, Fickert said. Test matches in Laos and Vietnam have been canceled or compromised due to a lack of funds, he said.
“You are coming back to point zero when you do not play. You have to start again and this is the biggest disappointment,” he said. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport will organize a two-week first division tournament in July.
“This is better than nothing, but it will not help us,” Fickert said.
“Our players are at a standstill,” he continued. “There is no championship, no first division teams or professional teams. In three or four years, they will be at the same level, there will still be a gap” compared to international squads, he said.
The Asian games, a 44 nation, multi-event international sport competition held in South Korea in October, could be an opportunity for Cambodia to gain match experience. But the National Olympic Committee decided not to send the team, Khek Ravy said.
Committee Chairman Dr My Samedy said the committee concluded the team could not compete against other Asian teams.
“[Our team] is very poor in technique and if we send them we will meet stronger teams and they will score many times against us,” he said. He said Thailand and Vietnam are the only two Southeast Asian countries sending a football team to the games.
The national team is set to resume international play at the Tiger Cup in Jakarta or Singapore in December, followed by the Southeast Asia Games early next year.
After Cambodia’s poor performance in the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Fickert presented a “technical report“ to the municipal government. “It is ridiculous and deadly,” the report read, “when we had to cancel our training program due to the lack or delay of financial support in the decisive phase of [the] preparation period.
“Before next official events,” the report continued, “a reasonable number (at least 8-10) test matches and serious training will be vital…Cambodia only had four test matches in preparation for the SEA games in 2001, the team was not ready for the competition.”
The World Cup will return to Asia in 2022, and Asean countries have proposed to Fifa that the 10 Asean nations co-host the games. Khek Ravy. For this to happen, he said, improving Cambodia’s highways, airports and stadiums will be a must, he said.
The first test of whether Cambodia is ready to host international football comes in 2004, when the Tiger Cup, a biannual regional football tournament, will be held here. Cambodia will need to improve both the Olympic Stadium and the Old Stadium and install one of those stadiums with lighting, he said.
A $40 million renovation of Olympic Stadium started in 2000, and was to have taken only one year. But the project is not near completion and progress appears to be minimal.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s national team players can benefit from watching and learning from this year’s World Cup. Fickert has rearranged the team’s training schedule so that they can watch the matches on television in the afternoon and evening and discuss what they see.
“The World Cup is a good experience for the Cambodian team because all the World Cup players play at a high level. We can learn from their techniques and strategies,” Sok Nida said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)