Chan Vathanaka should stay abroad instead of a return to Cambodia

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden wants Chan Vathanaka to continue playing abroad instead of a return to Cambodia to prove his doubters wrong.

And so it ends. There was so much excitement in Cambodia, and a little in Malaysia too, when Chan Vathanaka signed for Pahang FA in December 2017. Here was one of the most highly-rated attackers in the region making a step up to the Malaysian Super League and, not only that, to a genuinely big club in Pahang.

It hasn’t worked out. As we approach the mid-season point in the league, Pahang have already released the man known as ‘CV 11’. The forward known for his ability to prise open defences and go past defenders in the final third to showcase impressive finishing skills, is heading back north.

It has not come as a total surprise. Just after two games of the season had passed, I called Pahang coach Dollah Salleh to get his impressions of the star.

“He is a good player, or he used to be a good player,” Dollah said. “He hasn’t performed at that level he had before in the two games so far this season. When we sign foreign players they have to be better than the local players but there has not been much difference so far. Fans are already starting to question me about signing this player.”

That is crucial in Malaysia. Foreign players have to be better than the locals. And they don’t just have to be better, they have to be a lot better and — the most important point of all — they have to be better immediately.

There is simply no honeymoon period for imports. In many places, a coach calling on a young foreign star to improve after two games would be unimaginable as would saying publicly that fans were having doubts about the new signing.

But this is Malaysia, this is what happens. There is no honeymoon period. Dennis Bergkamp took time to settle and produce his best after signing for Arsenal in 1995. If he had come to Malaysia instead, he would have been on the plane (or the boat/train) home after three months.

It is crazy but it is the way things are. Plenty of imports have come to Malaysia to be shipped out just 3-4 months later, a policy that does nobody any good. It is often a shock to foreign players especially those who come from Europe and are struggling to adapt with the heat and humidity. There’s no time for any of that as coaches know that they can be fired just as quickly.

Dollah is a genial character but has made a decision to swap the Cambodian for Issey Nakajima-Farran. The Japanese-Canadian is an old Malaysian hand, is a strong character on and off the pitch and guarantees goals. It is a ruthless decision from the coach but it is one that reflects the realities of football in the country. He needs goals and results now for the third-placed Pahang to have a chance of taking a sixth league title and a first since 2004.

CV struggled to fit in and, especially in the early days, as Pahang struggled to get any fluency going, was usually on the periphery of the action. Whatever, without much of the ball, he was always going to have problems showing what he can do. Then he was trying to hard and not playing his natural game and it is understandable that his confidence (perhaps low after a year in Japan’s third tier where he barely played) dropped.  With early impressions not the best, his days looked numbered almost as soon as they started.

The important thing now for the player is not to lose heart. His time in Japan was disappointing for his legion of fans back home but it was an education in how a different and more advanced football culture does things. Malaysia is a bigger letdown as he was close to home. He has also shown he can play at this level — CV11 ran rings around the Malaysian national team defenders at the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. As Dollah told me, he knew the player could do it, he just felt that he wasn’t.

Vathanaka’s next step is the big one. It would be easy and understandable for the 24 year-old to return to the comfort of home. The temptation must be big but it must be resisted, he has done all he could in the Cambodian league. He originally left for a reason and his path still lies overseas.

The player’s comments on social media are encouraging. “What I have to do continuously is to not give up. Although I have stayed here [Pahang] for just a few months, it’s really a place that made me learn more about football. A new experience for life and the way I want to continue without stopping. I don’t give up because I want to win…”

CV11 is not finished yet. He needs to go and prove Dollah Salleh wrong and show that Pahang have made a mistake but going home is not the way to do that.