Khek Ravy, left, Kith Meng and Sao Sokha after the elections of the new Football Federation of Cambodia.
C all it the coup d'pitch of 2006. It was the day the CPP was recognized by sports juggernaut FIFA as the controlling party in Cambodian football-the country's most popular sport.
It was December 9, in a well-staged election held above Olympic Stadium, that ruling party assumed control of a once-royalist enterprise and entered the profitable and political world of professional sports.
It was also a day when the famously straitlaced CPP loosened up and acted like they meant to enjoy it.
Above the sound of crab cracking and clinking whisky - and above the sound of telecom tycoon Okhna Kith Meng's impromptu duet with Military Police Commander Sao Sokha - was the faint sound of a national pastime getting back on its feet after being thrust unjustly upon political winds.
Just more than a year ago, Prince Norodom Ranariddh was running football in Cambodia. He did so in a characteristically capricious fashion that culminated on November 7, 2005, when he unceremoniously yanked the Cambodian national team from the coming Southeast Asia Games - only to replace it with his own private club team Khemara and his handpicked North Korean coach Jo Yong Chol. Just months earlier Ranariddh had been a vocal public supporter of the national side and its Australian head coach Scott O'Donell.
"You can count on my support. You are not alone," Ranariddh said at O'Donell's swearing-in ceremony on July 29, 2005. "The Cambodian nation, the Olympic Committee and the Prime Minister are behind you." But weeks later, even after the Prince's team went winless at the SEA Games, it was the national program and its FIFA-sponsored organizing body, the Cambodian Football Federation (CFF), that became the focus of months of allegations and acrimony coming directly from the highest ranks of the CPP.
The broadsides of public criticism from government officials paralleled the plummeting political career of Prince Ranariddh and the prestige of his political party Funcinpec. Cambodian football, for the better part of the next year, would remain a political playground and a farce: a symbol of the Prince's indulgence and the ruling party's intention to make him pay for it.
Enter Khek Ravy. The president of the CFF since he won a contested election in 1998, Funcinpec loyalist Ravy bore the brunt of the both the Prince's poor judgment and attacks in the press from his detractors.
In March, Lok Sam Ath, the CPP's Director of Youth and Sport at the Ministry of Education said "We stopped trusting [the CFF]," and that Ravy "had abused the law" by holding the presidency without an election since 2003.
This and other critical remarks led Bun Sok, of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, to claim publicly that Hun Sen himself had ordered Minister of Education Kol Pheng to organize an election to replace Ravy.
This led to a snap election on April 25 in which Ravy was replaced unanimously by CPP stalwart Sao Sokha, a military man with longstanding ties directly to Hun Sen.
At the time, Bun Sok denied rumors that this election was a campaign to remove Funcinpec officials from positions of power.
But Ravy had something the CPP did not: well-established ties to the leaders of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), a personal friendship with controversial FIFA president Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, and an understanding of the backroom, bare-knuckle environment of international football.
A relative of the Royal Family and educated in France and California, Ravy is a former secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce who was once in charge ship registration and flags of convenience, among other things. This year he became the first Cambodia to serve on a World Cup Appeals Board in Berlin.
"FIFA and the AFC know football because of Khek Ravy. The face we have for Cambodia is Ravy," said Rene Adad, deputy director of the AFC's legal committee who was on hand to observe the December 9 elections. "Ravy has a special relationship with us. He is well liked."
So, when Zurich-based FIFA got wind of Ravy ouster in April, the world football body was quick to act. In a letter addressed to the CFF president from Blatter, FIFA threatened Cambodia with suspension on the grounds of political interference-unless Ravy was reinstated as president. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Post, included handwritten remarks from Blatter. After "Dear Mr President," Blatter had penned "Cher ami," or Dear friend, and he signed his name personally.
This threat of suspension led to months of impasse. The new management of the CFF was eager to maintain FIFA accreditation and funding to the tune of $250,000 each year. FIFA was anxious to retain a loyal federation president, who could be counted on to vote their way in AFC and FIFA elections.
According to one CFF insider, the stalemate led to a situation in which Ravy was recognized as the CFF president outside of Cambodia, and Soa Sokha held the title at home. But all this was about to change on December 9, with international officials watching from front-row seats.
In weeks prior to the election, relations between Sokha and Ravy-vastly different individuals-had been downright chummy.
The election proceeded with only one surprise. An 11-member executive committee was elected by ballot. Then the new committee adjourned to elect its new leaders. Sokha retained his presidency, Ravy was reinstalled as vice president and the AFC observers confirmed that the threat of suspension was lifted. A compromise, if ever there was one, and both men left beaming.
The shocker came from the AFC officials, who told the Post at the post-election banquet that not only did they realize the election was decided beforehand, but that FIFA preferred it that way.
"In fact it's better that things were worked out beforehand and things are a formality," said Adad. "This way there's more or less a consensus and there's no animosity."
According to Australian sports journalist Jesse Fink of Fox Sports, the interest FIFA and Afc have in ensuring stability in a devloping country like Cambodia, with an 184-ranked national side, is directly related to the upcoming FIFA and AFC presidential elections.
"In the world of football, I can't imagine one election that hasn't been fixed in some way. That's the nature of power and politics. It corrupts," said Fink by e-mail. "This is all about ensuring Blatter gets the votes in 2007. [AFC president Mohamed bin Hamman al Abdulla] is a key Blatter ally, and the AFC as a whole is behind Blatter for one reason. FIFA is the most political animal in world sport administraion - period."
And Andrew Jennings, author of "Foul!" a book about FIFA corruption agrees.
"All Cambodia has to do is not piss off FIFA, as long as they tow the line. Blatter will take care of them," Jennings said by e-mail on December 14.