Spectators at Olympic Stadium seem undeterred by the FFC’s introduction of ticket sales, optimistic that the money will finance a higher standard of play
Gate fees accepted: Fans want quality
Only when the Cambodian national team play international games, or when the Samdech Hun Sen Cup finals take place, will you find the stands of Olympic stadium at even half their capacity. However, during Cambodian Premier League (CPL) games, the stadium is often nearly empty, with only major team match-ups attracting any numbers of note.
Despite the low attendance on match days, the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) took a bold step this season to introduce gate takings at the main stand, with the fear that the US$1 fee might be regarded as too much for the average Cambodian, and drive away potential spectators.
However, of those who attend the CPL matches regularly, the general feeling is of a positive nature, with fans rationalising that they are now watching a higher level of play, thus justifying the ticket policy.
Dun Sophorn, 33, a food and beverage manager at Phnom Penh's Sunway Hotel visits the stadium every week to cheer his favourite team, Khemara Keila. "The league has improved a lot in the last two years I have been following the games," he noted. "The younger generation are now being attracted to come and watch football, and [experience] the passion of the game, which is good for the development of Cambodian [football]."
Sothea Pan, 33, a friend and colleague of Dun Sophorn, observed that "foreign players have added more glamour to the league." The pair felt the $1 fee was not too much, having gotten value for the money from watching their team run out 4-2 winners over Build Bright United on Saturday.
One of the few regular female spectators, Sophin Phorl, 25, also acknowledged that the standard of the games has improved in the past year. "The gate fee is not too much for me, but maybe for other girls," she said. "They don't really like to watch football like the boys, so only a few of them come here to watch."
Cameroon-born Monaco Tabondjo, 27, who watches CPL matches religiously, noted the impact of a busy crowd on the players. "Players like to play when they know there are fans behind them," he said. "It ups their game, even though sometimes the fans add more pressure if the team is not playing well."
Tabondjo called on football fans to attend CPL games more regularly, thus generating more revenue for the FCC, which is to distribute proceeds to the clubs at the end of the season. He also proposed that the FFC increase the quota of foreign players allowed at each CPL club, which would potentially raise the standard and attact a larger fan base of foreign expatriates.
San Siro founder Uba Anyanwu (centre) attempts to block a pass by former Kirivong Sok Sen Chey defender Justine Chijioke (left) during a game on the San Siro pitch in the Olympic Stadium complex Thursday.
Nareth Him, a student of Norton University, confessed that he comes to watch CPL games whenever he is sad or downcast.
"Today I feel unhappy, so I came here to relax my mind and try to lift my spirit," the 24-year-old undergraduate said. "I don't have any favourite team, I just watch for pleasure." Nareth Him thought the ticket prices were actually too cheap, while noting that there seemed to be an increase in attendance at the weekend but a decrease for the midweek games.
"I think many people are not aware of the match schedules," opined Nareth Him, noting that increased awareness would promote larger gate receipts.
Chhouen Kimeng, a 23-year-old student of Western University, said she was happy to see Cambodian football screened live on television every weekend, but enjoyed watching it live even more.
Phillip Zen, a 56-year-old German tourist who came to watch the league match with his wife and three children, commended the FFC for its high standard. "I am surprised to see the Cambodian league at this level now," he remarked. "The quality of play on display is quite impressive. My family and I have enjoyed our stay visiting Cambodia, and to come here this afternoon to watch this game is very good."
With the announcement of the $1.5 million three-year Metfone sponsorship deal starting next season, which will rebrand the CPL as the Metfone C-League, increased interest is expected from companies looking to cash in on the increased publicity of the CPL. Indeed, the FFC have offered to help CPL clubs promote themselves and find potential sponsors.
Watching live football is bound to become one of the most popular pastimes in the Kingdom.
Cambodia's home for unsigned players
Old Trafford, the home ground of Manchester United, is known as "the Theatre of Dreams", Liverpool's Anfield is revered for its Kop stand, and Stamford Bridge is synonymous with Chelsea. In Italy, the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza is more commonly called the San Siro for the Milan quarter where it is located, and hosts both Inter Milan and AC Milan home games.
In Cambodia, all CPL matches are played at the Olympic stadium, an obvious consequence of the lack of resources in the Kingdom, although with only five CPL fixtures per week, the ground can easily cope with demand. However, lurking in the Olympic complex is Cambodia's very own San Siro, an approximately 600-square-metre sandy space to the west of the Stadium, which is home to regular matches for foreigner players who are out of contract or aspire to one.
Players throng the Futsal-style pitch to keep fit and hone their skills under the watchful eyes of youthful Nigerian coach Uba Anyanwu, who established the pitch, albeit informally, around November 2008 after observing a surplus of unsigned players. "I started this forum for players to come together and train because most players could not find a ground to play," Anyanwu said. "It is open for all. We have many Cambodians, Europeans and Africans who come daily to train with us."
Australian-born soccer analyst Nick White advised CPL clubs to come visit the San Siro to scout for new talent. "There are quality players," he remarked.
The San Siro has survived on donations from professional players, such as Zila Seidu of Preah Khan Reach, David Adeyinka of Khemara Keila, and also some European tourists who have trained with them during a visit.
"We also get some support in [the] form of transportation and drinks when we go to play matches outside Phnom Penh," Anyanwu stated, referring to frequent practice matches arranged against CPL teams.
The San Siro side seem to hold their own against Premier League opposition, with wins against Phouchung Neak, National Defence Ministry and Preah Khan Reach (PKR), the last of which came in a 7-5 thriller at the San Siro last Saturday, during PKR's rest weekend.
The San Siro, which can often find Premier League players attending when not in club training, also now attracts a modest following of spectators, who stand and watch after their own workouts in the complex.
"Why will you [pay] to watch the league games where only six foreign players will be playing, when [you] can watch over 30 foreign players for free [at the San Siro]," said Nick White. "I have never seen a place where players play with such intensity, yet nothing at stake. They play with passion and [are] a joy to watch."
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)