John Duerden reckons Cambodia’s Malaysia-based quartet must step up and take the Angkor Warriors to the next level.
When Afghanistan travelled to Phnom Penh in June 2017 for their 2019 Asian Cup qualifier, they didn’t know what awaited them. Cambodia may not be giants of Asian football or even Southeast Asian football but what the country lacks in past achievements, they make up for in passion and heart. The Afghanistan coach Otto Pfister, a man who has been around, said that the atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium ranked alongside that of anywhere in the world. What the German did not know was that the 40,000 supporters is par for the Phnom Penh course and there are at least as many there for the friendliest of friendlies too.
Next week Afghanistan will be at home. In football terms at the moment, home is Tajikistan as Cambodia come visiting for the final match of their Asian Cup Group D qualifier. Both teams are already out of the running for the United Arab Emirates next January, though Cambodia have three points with Afghanistan on zero thanks to the 1-0 Phnom Penh result. With Jordan and Vietnam in the same group, that was always going to be a tough ask.
For Cambodia, playing in a group against stronger Asian nations was always more of an opportunity to gain experience and knowhow than to mount a genuine attempt to qualify and there’s nothing wrong with that. It was about building for the future.
This is especially true for the Angkor Warriors. This is one of the youngest squads ever seen in the international arena. If the caretaker coach Prak Sovannara wanted to, he could field a starting eleven with an average age that would be below 20. This is not a squad chosen with one eye on the future but one selected with a pair of binoculars focused firmly on the distant horizon. A tricky trip to Tajikistan to take on a physical Afghanistan team will be great experience.
The game against Afghanistan then is one for the future as it is with the friendly against Laos that precedes it. There is a total of eight uncapped players in the squad. Uncapped goalkeepers keo Soksela and Om Oudom will be hoping to get some playing time as the more experienced Sou Yaty gets a rest.
Defenders Sath Rosib of Boeung Ket, Ouk Sovann and Yue Safy as well could also be making their debuts while there is Sok Heang and Sin Kakada in midfield. There is some talent and plenty of potential then. The time is right to give them a taste of international football. Sovannara, preparing for what is likely his final game in charge with the FA looking to hire a coach from the Czech Republic, should be applauded for not simply focusing on getting a win to secure third place in a tough group. He is looking to leave his team and successor with a stronger future.
There is another element at play in Cambodia. This is the first international break since the start of the Southeast Asian season. This mean it is the first time for the overseas players to return from Malaysia. Chan Vathanaka of Pahang FC, Negeri Sembilan winger Prak Mony Udom, PKNP FC striker Keo Sokpheng and Terengganu midfielder Thierry Chantha Bin.
This four are not exactly veterans of the game with the oldest only 26. But this quartet are now the elder statesmen of Cambodian football. They are also the only ones with international experience. All four are playing in Malaysia and while this does not mean they are jetting home with tales of the AFC Champions league and taking on the best players in the world, they are playing at a higher level than their international teammates.
They have only played a few games in Malaysia but it is now their job to come home and show what they have learned to their younger companions, on the training pitch, in the game, in the hotel –wherever. Guus Hiddink said something similar as Korean coach in 2002. “The next step for Korean football is to send more and more players to Europe. Then they play with better players and for better coaches. They become better players and when they play for the national team they are better. This then shows those still at home what they have to do and it pushes them too.”
The Malaysian four are taking the first footsteps overseas but it is a journey that has to involve the whole country. They have to bring home what they have learned. This is epsecially true in the case of the teenage additions. These kids can not only play for the national team but spend time in the company of elders who can pass on the benefit of their experience.
These are now the elder statesmen of Cambodian football. Now they have to step forward and be counted.