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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - National team's coach speaks up

National team's coach speaks up

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The way Scott O'Donell tells it, November 8 began as a day just like any other. Since

he was hired on July 21 as coach of the Cambodian national football team he'd kept

a busy schedule, and this day was no exception. He lifted weights with his players

at 6 am, held a morning practice, then led a midday tactical meeting before the afternoon

workout. The squad was scheduled to leave for the Southeast Asian Games in Manila

in less than a week, and there was simply no time to waste.

Cambodian national football coach and ESPN/Star sports analyst Scott O'Donell at Olympic Stadium during a recent training session.

But later that day came an announcement that would shatter O'Donell's routine and

alter his perception of the entire football endeavor in Cambodia. The national program,

the Cambodian Football Federation (CFF) and his own performance were about to be

deflated.

"I was informed along with the team just after evening practice at Olympic Stadium.

[Cambodian Football Federation President] Khek Ravy told us that the National Olympic

Committee had decided to send a private team instead of our national team and that

the team would include four players on the national team," said O'Donell.

"No reason was given."

In an instant, four months of training by the national team were rendered useless.

The many pledges of support O'Donell received personally from Olympic Committee officials

were broken, and the embattled national football program was once again thrust into

a heated national debate in a country accustomed to years of football scandals and

defeats.

"To be honest I couldn't believe it," said O'Donell, who first came to

Cambodia in 1997 when he and his wife adopted the first of two Cambodian daughters.

"After the support that the Olympic Committee had given the team, it just didn't

make any sense. Obviously, I was disappointed but I was more disappointed for the

players, because I knew how much it meant to them. I told them I was proud of them."

The motives for the change remain opaque. The team chosen to replace O'Donell's squad

will be made up of players from Cambodia Premier League (CPL) champion Khemara -

a squad personally patronized by National Assembly and Olympic Committee President

Prince Norodom Ranarridh. A statement released on November 13 stated that "after

careful consideration, the President of the NOC, HRH Prince Norodom Ranariddh [will

allow] a reshaped national selection to go to the Philippines."

The statement also offered an excoriating evaluation of the national team, calling

its performance "catastrophic." The national team is 0-10 in its last three

international tournaments.

On July 29, at a ceremony welcoming O'Donell as coach, Ranariddh was quoted as saying

"You can count on my support. You are not alone. The Cambodian nation, the Olympic

Committee and the prime minister are behind you."

In fact, for months prior to the decision Ranariddh had been a vocal public supporter

of the team and O'Donell.

"If you recollect, it was Prince Ranariddh who immediately agreed that the federation

hire Scott when I submitted his CV," wrote Ravy in an email from Bahrain.

"It's very confusing," said O'Donell. "The feedback I've been getting

from one of my assistant coaches who has been attending monthly meetings with the

Olympic committee has been very positive."

The assessment that Khemara would be a better basis for a national team also puzzled

O'Donell and Ravy.

"Prince Ranariddh thinks that Khemara should constitute the backbone of the

national team. Let's wait for the results and see whether he is right or not,"

Ravy said. "Football has been very visible lately in Cambodia. I think the Cambodian

people are baffled by this decision."

Though the national team was defeated 1-0 in a friendly match against Khemara in

early August, the victors played with two foreign players and three members of Cambodia's

2003 SEA Games team. Khemara was the only CPL team to field foreigners.

"The opinions of people who do not have any expertise in the development of

football will hurt the entire program," Ravy said. "The prince may have

listened to these 'experts'."

Meas Sarin, secretary-general of the Olympic Committee, said on Friday that all questions

about the national team must now be directed to Ranariddh's half-brother, Prince

Norodom Chakrapong. Prince Chakrapong could not be reached during the Water Festival.

The CFF receives funding from private sponsors, and an annual $250,000 grant from

the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). This financial assistance

pays O'Donell's salary, the food and monthly $65 given to team members, and has been

used to build a training center 17 kilometers outside Phnom Penh.

According to Ravy, the arrangement with FIFA will not be affected by the team's removal

from the SEA Games.

"There will be no negative consequences. The football event in the SEA Games

is not sanctioned by the [Asian Football Confederation] or FIFA," said Ravy.

"The SEA Games council accepted the change but this would not have been allowed

in sanctioned tournaments."

Still, questions remain about the future of the CFF and its personnel.

"Scott has a contract with CFF for another two years," Ravy said. "He

will be in charge of the national teams.

"The CFF has to sit and talk to the Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Education,

Youth and Sport to determine the tasks of each and everyone. The image of Cambodia,

through football, is at stake."

For several weeks O'Donell , a 38-year-old Australian and 14-year veteran of professional

football, has been in Singapore fulfilling his obligations as an English Premier

League analyst and Sportscenter analyst for ESPN. He is scheduled to return on November

20.

"I am very disappointed with what has happened," he said. "It's difficult

to describe. I feel extremely sorry for the players."

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