The 2019 Asian Cup qualifier between Cambodia and Vietnam last week did not get the attention it deserved outside the confines of those two countries. With Asian teams either clinching World Cup spots or getting into the play-offs, the headlines were full of other teams: Syria, South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan.
Yet there can’t have been any atmospheres that surpassed that of the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh. Again, there was a bumper crowd in the Cambodian capital as there is always is, almost regardless of the opposition or the occasion, and again the fans got behind their heroes. They did not get their rewards as they ended up losing 2-1 to one of the region’s top teams.
And once again, the main man for the hosts was Chan Vathanaka. The attacker took his chance for the equalising goal very well and with impressive coolness. ‘CV11’ has confirmed his reputation as one of the best talents in the whole region –not just young talents but one of the best talents regardless of age.
— Ung Chamroeun (@UngChamroeun) September 5, 2017
He had scored for fun in the Cambodian league with Preah Khan Reach and especially for Boeung Ket Angkor and he showed his talent once again in the AFF Sukuzi Cup. Malaysian defenders still wake up in cold sweats about their meeting with the star in Yangon last November. That sealed his burgeoning regional reputation.
It was clear as a Siem Reap sunrise that he needed a bigger stage to tread on a regular basis. There may be passion aplenty in the Land of the Khmers but in terms of standards, on and off the pitch, there is still a long way to go.
And Vathanaka chose to go a long way. He went to Japan, to play for Fujieda MYFC in the country’s third tier. The rising star’s decision to go to the Land of the Rising Sun was a brave one. Any comfort zone was left way behind. It was also a gamble and many felt that he could have done better than the J3. But if a season showing what he can do was what it took to get to the top then maybe it was not a bad idea.
But he has barely appeared this season and has been a peripheral figure. Going to play in Japan’s third tier was a debatable move. Going to not play in Japan’s third tier is less so. There is no doubt that he can learn many things with his new club but he could learn plenty elsewhere too and be playing first team and top tier football at the same time.
Against Vietnam, he showed once again that he has what it takes to shine against the best that Southeast Asia has to offer. If Japan is not working out – and not playing in J3 is unlikely to result in a move higher up the Japanese league at the end of the season –then coming closer to home is the best move for now.
Clubs in Malaysia and Singapore should be on his trail. He would be a genuine star in these leagues but his continuing good performances for his country suggest that maybe he should be aiming higher – and in Southeast Asia, higher means Thailand.
Next season, clubs in the Thai top tier will have an extra spot reserved for foreign players who are from the ASEAN region. This adds to the incentive for teams to take a gamble on regional talent and CV 11 is no gamble.
Even without the quota, the Cambodian is worth a place and it would be a step in the right direction for the player. He would be playing at a good Asian level, with clubs that are improving on and off the pitch.
Getting to the right team where he would be sure of playing time would be an exciting move. The best Thai teams are now competing in the Asian Champions League and can hold their own against the very best in the continent as Buriram United and Muangthong United have shown in recent years.
There is still some imbalance there and a gap between the better teams at the top and how they operate on as well and off the pitch and those at the bottom but Thailand football is improving across the board.
Vathanaka would not just grace any team in the region and it would not only give the player the regular time, experience and exposure he needs but it would have other benefits too. It would show that Thailand can become the go-to ASEAN league for the best ASEAN players and show Vathanaka’s colleagues that Cambodians can star away from home.
It’s time for CV11 to return to South-East Asia and Thailand is the best option.