Hok Sochetra is one of Cambodia's most celebrated footballers. A national team player from 1995 to 2003, he has plied his trade for numerous clubs and has more recently turned his attention to coaching and youth training. His coaching career reads like a who's who of Cambodian teams with stints at Hello United and Phnom Penh FC (which later became Phnom Penh Empire and now Phnom Penh Crown) to name just a few.
In 2007, he began working for Samart Communications, which attempted to utilise his celebrity status to help promote its mobile phone networks. Despite having to quit the national team to concentrate on working for the private company, he also coached its football team based in Kratie province. However, a change in structure of the company inspired him to return to domestic competition and he teamed up with Post Tel Club for half a season last year as a coach before joining Preah Khan Reach as a player/coach.
"There are a lot of young players in this team," he said. "I give ideas and experience [to them]."
Hok Sochetra remembers his first coach fondly. "Mr Sarouen - the best player before", he said, also mentioning the support of Mr Salakan, now the coach of Ranger FC, and Joachim Frickert from Germany, who coached the national squad.
When asked about his favourite moment in his long and illustrious career, Hok Sochetra replied: "I won the best player in Southeast Asia in 1997 - the Golden Ball from Sanyo. At that time, I was playing in a World Cup qualifier. I scored the goal that got a 1-1 draw against Indonesia."
It was a game that helped push Cambodian football into the public spotlight.
The 35-year-old was also instrumental in helping Preah Khan Reach obtain third placing in this year's Samdech Hun Sen Cup. However, his deft touch, powerful and accurate striking, and ability to brush off defenders couldnt hide his lack of speed and stamina compared with the new breed of young players.
Hok Sochetra said he was "not sure" if Saturday's game would be his last competitive top-flight game. "I will try to keep playing," he said.
When asked about the future of football in Cambodia, Hok Sochetra lamented the severe lack of funding for development. "We dont have a national football academy," he said. "So many players are too old already - around 20 - before joining a football team. They dont play from a very young age and learn step by step. Sometimes the coaches have to look at players [in street games] and ask them to join a club."
The veteran footballer struggled in his own career to balance playing football with earning enough money for his family. "Cambodians cannot live on their [playing] salaries alone. It's not enough," he said, adding: "If the government improve [their contribution] to football, the players can live [by only playing football]. The best players only receive a salary of US$100 or $200 per month."
Hok Sochetra recognised that the good physical condition of many of the younger players but noted a lack of a good footballing brain. "They can pass, they can shoot, but they dont know how to [lose] the defender to create space to have a chance at goal. They don't know how to [outsmart] the goalkeeper," he said.
Of promising young national players such as Khim Borey and Kouch Sokumpheak, Hok Sochetra said: "They have skill and power already but need a good coach to show them how to use their heads to play [more intelligent] football. If we play football without our brains, we just run, run, run. It's not enough for football."
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)