Expatriate Games Foreign Footballers Feature Heavily in the Cambodian Premier League, But is Their Presence Constructive or Destructive?

You loved him or you hated him, with his upturned collar, ramrod posture and puffed-out chest. There were the sublime moments, when he elevated the crude art of football and tickled the affections of the indifferent. Then again, he did once spit at a fan and was almost imprisoned for fly-kicking a goading hooligan. Parents shielded their children’s eyes from Manchester United’s Eric Cantona, the cocksure Frenchman and flawed genius. They wanted a more wholesome role model for their kids.

But they were missing something. They didn’t know about the early training sessions or the extra hours he spent honing his technique every afternoon while older players were busy ridding their golf games of unruly slices. They were unaware that Cantona’s professional example would inspire a generation of homegrown British players to transcend the comfortable plateau of their peers.

If only Cambodian football were graced with the presence of such a swaggering, villainous role model.

At their best, foreign players are profoundly beneficial to any league, providing both diversity and added expertise. At their worst, they stifle the development of younger players and create disharmony from the touchline to the terraces.

So, just how beneficial has foreign flux been to football in Cambodia?

In terms of professionalism and foreign players, Cambodian football is still in its infancy. Having only resumed domestic competition in 1979, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that overseas professionals regularly plied their trade in the league. Today the number playing in the Cambodian Premier League’s 10 clubs stands at 37, including players from Nigeria, Cameroon, Vietnam, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Undoubtedly, the steady stream of mainly Nigerian players into the Cambodian Premier League has helped confront local players with the physical demands of the global game. According to Michael Nen, coach of Cambodian Premier League champs NagaCorp, his squad has become more physically equipped due to the influx of stronger, more athletic players. “Basically, I would think they have learned a lot about strength and how to protect the ball…. Most of the time our Asian, particularly our Cambodian players, don’t concentrate on upper body strength.”

He added that home grown players have a lot to learn from expatriate players in terms of their mental approach: “When we approach the game, we must have a high [competitive] spirit to raise the game to a different stage…which I see a lack of in Cambodian players.” That said, increased physical strength and competitive spirit are not synonymous with technical proficiency. In a recent interview, Cambodian national team coach Scott O’Donnel voiced his concerns over the merits of the current imports.

“Technically, very few of them are better than the local players we’ve got. It’s just that they use their size and athleticism to dominate the littler Cambodian guys,” he said. “It would be good if the clubs could hire some better quality foreigners to help raise the standard of the league, to help teach the local players how to become better players.”

Ken Gadaffi, president of the Nigerian Community Association, who provides informal consultation for the Football Federation of Cambodia, disagrees with O’Donnel’s assertion. Not only does he think the presence of foreigners has helped improve the league, he advocates a change in the rules to allow eight foreign players in each squad instead of five, with five allowed to take to the field instead of three. This, he argues, would compensate for the paucity of local talent: “What they are trying to protect is that they are trying to give the local players the chance, but I say that the local players they have now are not good enough.”

He added that CPL sides are struggling to find enough local players to fill their squads. The ensuing selection of sub-standard players, he maintains, is stymieing the game’s growth. “You can only get better when you play the better players or when you play with the better players.” Not that an increase in volume is necessarily the solution to the problem. It is imperative that CPL clubs attract the right caliber of professional and do their utmost to keep these players involved in Cambodian football for as long as possible.

O’Donnel explains that when the right type of player is drafted in from outside, the benefits can be immense. He cited the example of Stewart Petrie, a former Scottish professional, who played under him at Singaporean club side Geylang United.

“He was an experienced professional.He came in and showed the boys. He did extra gym work, came in before sessions to do work, ate the right things and didn’t drink…. It set a great example for all the local boys. They actually saw how a true professional acts and behaves.”

The importance in having overseas players from diverse backgrounds can also not be underestimated. Currently, over 80 percent of the CPL’s foreign players are of Nigerian extraction, which is not the case in neighboring leagues.

According to the Thai football website, there are 68 foreign players in the Thai Premier League from 16 different countries, including 14 from Brazil and professionals from Argentina and Germany.

Similarly, Vietnam has over 100 foreign players in its premier league, including 40 from Brazil. According to the English-language paper Viet Nam News, the coach of army-backed squad The Cong’s even traveled to Brazil to recruit three players in July. While hardly foolproof, this approach goes some way toward attracting players with the requisite ability and character. This in turn makes the leagues more attractive for fans, sponsors and television. It also provides the local players with a far more rounded footballing education.

Admittedly, comparisons between Cambodia and its more affluent neighbors are unfair, but the unfortunate truth is that many of the foreign players see Cambodian football as a bridge toward better things. The players’ wages are modest by regional standards and therefore there is little incentive for them to take root.

NagaCorp’s top-scoring Nigerian striker, Sunday Patrick Okonkwo has little inclination to stick around: “I’m putting in all my efforts that somebody might see me and take me…. I believe that Thailand is far better than Cambodia, and they pay you more there,” he said in a recent interview.

On the same day, Friday Nwakuna, another of NagaCorp’s Nigerian contingent, said his length of stay will rely more on his own resourcefulness than being noticed: “It depends on how I relocate and my plans towards my next move…. Football is not just about moving, it is [about] getting connected to where you are going.”

It would be easy to accuse foreign players of fickle wanderlust, but in reality, if they are to attain job security, then they must move elsewhere.

Gadaffi outlines the precariousness of their situation: “Many of these [overseas] players change club quickly. They don’t stay long either because the clubs don’t pay them as they promised or they don’t even pay them.” He explained that some players are given one-year contracts with CPL sides, which are then terminated after the roughly four-and-a-half-month season has concluded. Given the steady influx of Nigerian players into Cambodia, he added that, “this makes it easier for the clubs to shuffle from time to time.” Needless to say, this contractual instability does very little to encourage foreign talent to stay long enough to contribute toward the game’s development.

The transient nature of expatriate footballers in Cambodia leaves the league’s coaches in an awkward position. By the time coaches get their squads to gel, there is a change in personnel. For Nen, the NagaCorp coach, immersing his foreign imports can be problematic. “They’ve been making a very good impact, once we get them to play together…foreign players [only] like to play with a few people, and the locals get the ball and play only with themselves.”

While the constant change of personnel can be detrimental to the evolution of local talent, it does contain an upside: Foreign players act as inadvertent advertisements for upward mobility. With the frequent traffic of foreign players in Southeast Asian leagues, Cambodian players are made aware of the financial benefits derived from playing outside one’s own country, and of the physical and mental skills required to make the leap to a higher standard. A more pronounced ambition is crucial if Cambodia is to compete with its regional rivals.

Ironically, transferring to other Southeast Asian leagues is not as straightforward for regional players as it is for players from other continents. O’Donnel laments this phenomenon. “It’s a big problem in a lot of Southeast Asian countries that they don’t get the opportunities to play as foreigners in another league because normally the coaches prefer to take players from outside the region, as they think they’re better,” he said.

The importance of Cambodians players adapting to play alongside foreign players effectively and honing their skills in international leagues cannot be underestimated. If Cambodia is going to competitive at the international level in the years to come, these hurdles must be surmounted. [Drop cap] In recent years, the trend of naturalizing foreign players to play for international sides has become more pronounced. Despite football’s world governing body FIFA tightening its naturalization rule, a player who lives and works in a country for five years qualifies to play for that country’s national team if he hasn’t already played for his country of citizenship.

With Asean neighbors Singapore and Vietnam taking advantage of FIFA’s naturalization rule, fielding foreign players at international level is no longer merely a means of stealing a match on rivals but a case of maintaining pace.

In the past few months, players of Ukrainian, Nigerian and Brazilian extraction have received call-ups to play for Vietnam, and according to the Viet Nam Net website, 10 overseas players will qualify for naturalization by the end of the year. Thailand may have adopted a stricter approach to naturalization, with its refusal to play anyone without Thai ancestry. However, it has been proactive in enticing players of Thai descent playing in European leagues to come and play for the national side. It has become apparent that Cambodia cannot let itself fall further behind.

At present, no foreign players in the CPL qualify to play for the national side, though the Football Federation seems receptive to the idea. In a recent e-mail, May Tola, deputy secretary-general of the FFC, said that: “I personally think that that Cambodia should not be an exception to welcome any good players to play for Cambodia if they are better than the local ones.” O’Donnel echoed the stance from within the federation but remains unconvinced about the merits of the current set of overseas players: “I think there’s probably one that I think is better than all our local players.”

Gadaffi also endorses the federation’s thinking but he feels that they may be reluctant to field naturalized players or trawl the European leagues for players of Cambodian descent due to financial constraints: “I think they feel that they don’t have the resources to invite and to take care of the players. That would make [these players] jump ship.”

Regarding O’Donnel’s remarks, he disagrees forcefully: “He [O’Donnel] cannot tell me that the 25 players he picks for Cambodia are better than the African players…. What makes the Cambodian league tick are the African players.” Whatever the attitudes toward the foreign players in the CPL, the overriding impression is that they are aiding the development of Cambodian football. And with the promise of added funding for the CPL and national sides in 2010, progress seems assured.

Hopefully, the current crop of foreign players will be around long enough to see it.

(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)

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