The Khmer New Year celebrations last week was jazzed up on April 14 after the official draw for the second round of the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifiers held in Kuala Lumpur saw Cambodia clustered in Group E with Japan, Syria, Afghanistan and Singapore in the Kingdom’s most notable appearance on an international stage.
Cambodia is the lowest ranked team in the group at 179 while Four-time Asian Champions Japan, who have played in every World Cup since 1998 are ranked as high as 50. Syria is the next best at 126 followed by Afghanistan 135 and Singapore at 162.
The first match day on June 11, features a lively regional rivalry with Cambodia taking on Singapore at the Olympic Stadium on a newly laid synthetic grass pitch. The return leg will be played at the Jalan Besar Stadium in Singapore on October 13.
The other home match days for Cambodia are June 16 (Afghanistan), September 8 (Syria) and November 17 (Japan).
The away match days are September 3 (Japan), October 13 (Singapore), November 12 (Afghanistan) and March 24, 2016 (Syria).
Of the 40 teams in contention, eight group winners and four best second-placed teams make it to the final round of the World Cup qualifiers as well as the 2019 Asian Cup finals to be held in United Arab Emirates. The only silver lining for the 28 teams that get knocked out of the race to Russia at the end of the second round is that the 16 highest placed teams get a shot at the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.
Cambodia’s 4-1 aggregate win over Macau in the March pre-qualifiers helped the country join this exalted company for the first time, erasing the bitter memories of a shocking 8-6 aggregate loss to Laos which followed a 4-2 home win and 6-2 away bashing in the 2014 cycle.
National coach Lee Tae Hoon told the Post after the Macau victory that his greatest ambition had always been to see Cambodia perform on a big stage against reputed teams.
“Here we have that great opportunity for our players of the time. The sheer experience and educational value of playing teams like Japan in this highly competitive environment is indeed a blessing” the coach said as he put his squad through the paces in preparation for the ensuing SEA Games in Singapore.
SEA games football
Interestingly, a day after the Asian Confederation groupings were known, the SEA Games football draw was also released in Singapore.
The competition kicks off on May 29, nearly a week before the official opening of the biennial event. The semifinals will be played on June 13 and the grand final two days later.
Coincidentally, Cambodia and Singapore will again be in each others company. They were drawn in Group A along side Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. The other group is made up of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste.