On the eve of the season kickoff, John Duerden takes a look at why the 2018 Malaysia Super League could mean a lot for Cambodian football.
The 2018 Malaysia Super League is not just a big deal for fans in Malaysia, the same is true of fans in Cambodia. From supporters back home in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in the country, this year could be special.
No less than four Angkor Warriors are getting ready to show what they can do. Nobody can deny that there is serious passion for the beautiful game in the country. Go to the capital even for a friendly game to the Olympic Stadium and crowds of 50,000 are not uncommon, even against opposition that is not exactly glamorous.
What remains to be seen is how four players perform in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest leagues.
These are not young unknowns but star players. Keo Sokpheng has played over 30 times for the national team and the attacking midfielder is now looking forward to a new start with PKNP in Perak. Prak Mony Udom is one of the top wide players in the region and – at the age of 23 – is not far short of a half-century of international appearances and now he is with Negeri Sembilan. Influential French-born midfielder Thierry Chantha Bin could be a star with Terengganu.
And then there is Chan Vathanaka. The poster boy of Cambodian football and a hero in his homeland. He was one of the stars at the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, running rings around the Malaysian defence in Myanmar and generally showing the region what he was all about. The forward wanted to show his skills to the rest of Asia and headed to Japan for the start of the 2017 season. Fans were a little disappointed when he joined a J3 team. Even worse was that he never played, only appearing for a few minutes towards the end of the campaign when there was little to play for.
So it is not only Cambodian football in general that has something to prove, but ‘CV11’ in particular. He has been feted at home as a player who not only scored lots of goals but made thing happen on the pitch. He scared defenders with his running, dribbling and all-round vision in and around the area.
In Japan, it didn’t happen and there were rumours that the club just weren’t really that interested and it was all part of the J.League’s desire to use ASEAN players to tap into the Southeast Asian market and build audiences and revenue. Whether that is true or not, CV11 has a point to prove.
They all do. This is the first time that a major ASEAN league has gone from having zero players from a smaller footballing nation to suddenly recruiting four. If the quartet all fail, or mostly fail, in the coming months, then the market for Cambodian players overseas, not large to begin with, it going to be much smaller for the next few years. The reputation, that has been slowly growing over the years, will be almost back to square one. After Malaysia, it is likely that the only place for them to go will be home.
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Should the opposite happen however, then it will be very different. If three or four have good seasons in the Malaysia Super League, then that is not only good in its own right – and for them and their teams – but will be received favourably at home. They will also increase the interest in and respect for Cambodian players around the ASEAN region. If these players can have a good season in Malaysia then there will be more Malaysian clubs and others from elsewhere in the region. And who knows? Maybe even Asia too.
Expectations should not be too high however. After all, while Malaysia is much closer to Cambodia in all sorts of ways than Japan is, it is still a foreign country. It is going to take time to adapt and time for them to find their best form.
Fans at the four clubs in Malaysia need to be patient with their new imports. These players have little international experience and are they need time and understanding.
Fans at home in Cambodia should be patient too. The success of the season will not be decided in the first few games. There just needs to be a few signs that these players can, at first, settle and then ultimately shine. If they can however, then 2018 will be a year to remember for Cambodian football as well as Malaysian football too.