Scott McIntyre has an in-depth look at the present and future of football in Cambodia with up-and-coming coach Meas Channa.
When FOX Sports Asia visited northern Cambodia for last season’s final league match, there was a highly unusual sight in the stands at Svay Thom Stadium in Siem Reap.
Dressed in an orange shirt that matched the kit being worn by the home club, carrying a backpack and nestled in amongst the thousand or so supporters of the Cambodian Tiger side, sat Meas Channa, the coach of the opposition team, Nagaworld FC.
At 34, the former Cambodian international is now one of the youngest coaches anywhere in Southeast Asia and, that day, he was paying for some ill-tempered behaviour in the previous match and serving a touchline ban.
It didn’t help that – in his absence – Nagaworld fell to an upset 2-1 loss that saw them blow the chance to finish top of the standings. But, with the new C-League season kicking off this weekend, there’s plenty for the young coach to be excited about.
Gone is last year’s Golden Boot winner with the prolific Kipson Authiere having moved to Malaysia, but the club has brought in solid reinforcements with former Japan youth international Tatsuro Inui arriving along with Nigerian George Bisan, who comes with a solid goalscoring record at Svay Rieng – the side that Nagaworld lost to in the final of the 2017 Hun Sen Cup.
Ahead of the opening round of fixtures this weekend, where Nagaworld host Svay Rieng in a rematch of that cup final, FOX Sports Asia caught up with one of Southeast Asia’s brightest young coaches to discuss the transition from playing, his thoughts on Cambodian players moving abroad and his expectations for the new season.
FOX Sports Asia (FSA): Meas, thanks for speaking with us. Can we start by talking about the differences you’ve faced between being a player at club and international level to now leading one of Cambodia’s biggest club sides?
Meas Channa (MC): For me, it’s much more difficult being a coach. During my time as a player I was not so stressed or scared even when it came to big national team matches with 50,000 supporters.
I was never worried in those moments but, as a coach, sometimes you have those feelings and it’s stressful and you can get angry with the players but I never did that as a player.
FSA: Have you noticed a real change in Cambodian football over the past couple of years?
MC: If you compare to when I was a player, things are different and – as a coach – I can see why.
Before there wasn’t a great tactical understanding and strategy as to how teams often played but that much better now than before.
In terms of the national team, if you look before and say – on a scale of 100 – other Southeast Asian countries were 100, then we were 20 or 30. Now, I think we’re closer to 80 or 90.
FSA: Can you see a time, perhaps in the next decade or so, when Cambodian football can be considered on the same level as the other major leagues in the region in Thailand and Vietnam?
MC: If our league attracts more fans, we keep giving chances to young players and we keep developing academies, then – in five years – I’m sure we can approach the level of Thailand.
I’m not saying we could regularly beat them at national level but at least we would be competitive – reduce the umber of goals we concede and become far more competitive, that’s the aim.
FSA: There have recently been several Cambodian players moving abroad with the headline of course being Chan Vathanaka, who didn’t settle in his time in Japan and has now moved to a lower level in Malaysia. What did you make of those moves and are they the right thing for Cambodian football?
MC: It was good for Chan Vathanaka to go to Japan and I felt it was better if he had stayed there.
He was just there for a year and I feel he should have stayed more. I’m sure he could’ve played this year when you consider that maybe he wasn’t fit and fully up to speed with everything in Japan during that first season and he could have got stronger and stronger.
It’s not just about him and the others though, because I believe there are many good players in Cambodia who have the talent and should be playing abroad, and there are five or six who can be successful in other leagues in Southeast Asia.
Agents are the issue though because we don’t have agents – the local players don’t have them and so the players don’t know how to move.
We still have a limit because the league is not as strong as others and there is that perception that if the league as a whole is not strong then players aren’t really looked at so much.
FSA: Finally, what are your hopes for the new season especially with a key player in Kipson Atuheire having left the club?
MC: I’m really happy with how our preparations have gone during the off-season and, even though we lost Kipson, I’m happy with the new foreign players that we have at the club.
I’m enjoying coaching Nagaworld and confident and hopeful that we can improve both our results and performance from last season.