Cambodia’s fanatical fans second to none

It is always hard to say which set of fans are the best in Asia especially when it comes to national teams. There are many contenders.

There is the positivity of the Japanese fans. The home atmospheres can’t be described as hostile but they are loud and energetic. More than most in Asia, the followers of the Samurai Blue travel around the continent in numbers. Head to even a stadium in West or Central Asia when Japan are playing and prepare yourself for 90 minutes of hearing ‘Nippon, Nippon’ and all the rest. The Chinese can often travel well and there are stadiums in the Middle Kingdom where you can’t hear yourself think.

In South-east Asia, there are also fans who fill arenas on a regular basis and get behind the team in some style. You can’t leave the Indonesians off any list and the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand as long as the fans do. When the opposition and timing is right, Hanoi is also a great place to be.

Over in the west, nobody forgets a trip to the mighty Azadi Stadium in Tehran, a concrete cathedral that can get so raucous that authorities don’t always allow it to be filled to capacity. Saudi Arabia can raise the roof in Riyadh or Jeddah though Dammam has the passion, though does not often get the nod.

But head down the FIFA rankings and keep going down all the way to 174 and you will find a team that is supported in a style that would shame many of the big boys on the continent but one that has little success to look back on.

Head to Cambodia on match day and you are in for a treat whatever the result. Fans in the country are turning the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh into one of the cathedrals of Asian football. Memorable and enjoyable atmospheres are so common that they are in danger of being taken for granted. But it shouldn’t be.

Another packed crowd in Phnom Penh.

One of the biggest attendances in the world in the past few days was, once again, in the Cambodian capital and not far from 50,000 fans were treated to a first Asian Cup qualification win since 1972.

Afghanistan, South Asian Champions in 2013 and runners-up in 2015, were the latest team to experience the full effect though one of the few of late not to win as they were defeated 1-0.

Going into the game with Afghanistan, the Angkor Warriors had lost eight games in a row. These were games against Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, India and others. Yet despite the rotten run, the fans keep coming and on Tuesday, they were finally rewarded for their patience, passion and patriotism.

The only goal of the game was an ugly one. Prak Mony Udom showed the virtue of hard work on the hour. When the Afghan goalkeeper mis-controlled a backpass, the midfielder put him under pressure and was rewarded as the clearance hit him and bounced into the net.

The twinkle-toed Chan Vathanaka scores more beautiful goals and makes beautiful things happen. The forward caused problems once again. The Japanese-based star is a genuine talent and has the potential to help lead Cambodia on to bigger and better things.

But this is a team that is growing. Brazilian coach Leonardo Vitorino came earlier in the year and struggled to first to get to grips with his new job. He has focused on trying to shore up the defence, trying to improve the organisation so the team can deal with set pieces and long throw-ins. He has been trying to make the team more pragmatic and hard-working while trying to give the likes of CV11 a platform to do what they do best.

The question for fans is whether the team can go all the way to the United Arab Emirates in January 2019. With two games down and four to go, Cambodia occupy second spot, one point behind Jordan and one above Vietnam. The top two in the four-team group make it.

It will likely come down to the next two games, back-to-back clashes against Vietnam in September and October. The first is at home. The Phnom Penh passion experience will have to be in full effect for that clash.

The odds are still against the Angkor Warriors and a young side is surely not quite ready to take on Vietnam for that second spot but the men from Hanoi, with two draws from two games, will be a little warier after the win over Afghanistan.

Given the support in Phnom Penh and the growing talent on the pitch, underestimating Cambodia is dangerous. The team is not yet one of the best in Asia but the passion and the loyalty of the fans is up there with the world’s best.