Cambodia’s heartbreaking 6-2 extra time defeat at the hands of neighbouring rivals Laos in their 2014 World Cup qualifying first round second leg in Vientiane on July 3 sent shockwaves around the football community back home.
It was a bitter pill to swallow after the highs of the 4-2 home victory at Olympic Stadium on June 29, and many fans have since voiced their disdain for the current management under the stewardship of South Korean coach Lee Tae Hoon on social media websites such as Facebook and sabay.com.kh. I have also held discussions on my own dedicated blogsite football-roubroum.co.cc.
I travelled with the team to Laos as a reporter. Many fans have sent me their opinions on the result, including some accusations that the match was deliberately lost. From what I saw with my own eyes during the game in Vientiane, I can honestly say that Laos were the stronger team on the day and Cambodia simply came in second.
Local and foreign fans of Cambodian football were of course upset to see the team once again eliminated in the first round, and some comments were certainly made in anger. But what people really want to see is the team developing as well as having the Football Federation of Cambodia take note of their criticisms.
Established blogger on Cambodian football, Andy Brouwer, bemoaned the national team’s apparent insistence on “conceding early goals” on his site cambodiafootball.blogspot.com. Brouwer supported the reactions of other Cambodia fans at remarks made by national team manager Vann Ly that the “World Cup is not our target,” as attributed to him in an indirect quote in Koh Santepheap daily newspaper on July 4.
Vann Ly claimed he have never made such a statement, asserting that all events are important for the national team including friendly games.
Brouwer, meanwhile, reserved his harshest assessment for the selection policy employed by Lee Tae Hoon.
“[Lee’s] stated desire to concentrate on the U-23 team (with another BIDC Cup and the SEA Games in his sights later this year) will not go down well with the national team fans,” wrote Brouwer under the heading ‘Fall from Grace.’
“To imply that he wasn’t interested in the World Cup competition should not be forgiven or forgotten by the fans. To me that simply stinks. To prepare so poorly for the World Cup games with two scraping-the-barrel friendlies, was crap in the extreme.”
Lay Seng Thai, a 29-year-old Cambodian football fan living in Siem Reap, concluded that Lee “might be the worst ever national team coach we haved hired this decade,” during an email sent to me on July 4.
“He wasted enough time and chances to restore our football image [in] the ASEAN region. The international performances are usually worse since Scott O’Donell left [last year].”
Under Lee, Cambodia have failed to make the finals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup and the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.
Seng Thai added that of 11 countries in the ASEAN bloc, Cambodia could now only hope to beat the “very new nation” of Timor Leste, while Laos, the Philippines, and Brunei, who were previously at their same level, have quickly developed.
Lee Tae Hoon displayed shades of disgraced former France coach Raymond Domenech, who left key players Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema out of his ill-fated 2010 World Cup squad, in ignoring the talents of Keo Sokngorn, Khim Borey, and Chan Rithy, all of whom currently play for Thai clubs.
Lee also overlooked Phnom Penh Crown’s Chan Chhaya, who helped Cambodia’s U23s win the BIDC Cup in 2009, from his line up for the games against Laos.
Nick White, an Australian reporter who travelled to see the second leg in Vientiane, described the omissions as “scandalous” in an email on Monday, adding: “Had proven players of this caliber been on the bench in Laos the result may well have been different.”
White also lamented the Federation’s decision to send just 18 players for their away leg, a move he said had “backfired spectacularly.”
Of the seven players available on the bench, none were strikers, with Lee making three “like for like” replacements well before full-time, according to White. Laos coach Hans-Peter Schaller was given the luxury of having 23 players to choose from during both legs and enjoyed a match-winning substitution in extra time goal scorer Visay Phaphouvanin.
Accusations of match-fixing and condemnation of the FFC’s administration have been bounded about, although some local fans remain behind the national team set up.
“Cambodian football is developing, but when we reach a certain level other countries may be ahead. Lee, however, has given the chances to young players to show their abilities,” Chan Sothea wrote on the live comment section of my blogsite.
In a post match address to his team in the changing rooms of New Laos National Stadium, coach Lee told his players they were not to blame for the loss. “I am only one person who is responsible to this loss, it’s not you all,” he said.
Lee also admired the form and spirit of the Laos side, who attacked and put a lot of pressure on his team to ensure victory. “Our players still have a problem with controlling their feelings in away matches, which we need to spend a lot of time to change,” he said. “Laos also encountered the same difficulties which allowed us to win 4-2 in the first leg.”
Laos also have the advantage of regular training on a high quality surface at the national stadium, which was built for the 2009 SEA Games, while Cambodia is used to the tricky turf of Olympic Stadium.
Lee noted that Laos were comfortable at making quick and accurate passes on their home pitch, and could also predict the bounce of the ball well.
FFC Spokesman and Deputy General Secretay May Tola voiced their regret that Cambodia had failed to progress in the tournament, but said the close nature of the result was not surprising as both teams had remained around the same level for the past 16 years.
“Both teams won 4-2 respectively at their own home soil in ordinary time. What happened in the extra time is more or less luck and opportunity,” he said.
“There are many aspects about managements of teams. People have to be very specific about their opinions. For my personal view, although it has not been great or perfect, the FFC has done everything possible to support the team considering our limited means and many tasks to implement.”
May Tola asserted that Lee Tae Hoon is a skillful coach who has a long vision to build up the Cambodia national team. He also confirmed that the Federation had offered Lee a one-year extension to his contract, which will see him lead the team for two important events – the Mekong Region International BIDC Cup, to be competed by six regional sides at Olympic Stadium in October, and the 26th SEA Games in Indonesia in November.
On the allegations of match-fixing during the World Cup qualifiers, the Secretary revealed that the FFC had set up an adhoc committee to investigate the matter.
“We will firstly need the coach to make a report and we will watch the match again to see if our players have done their best and whether the accusation of match fixing/selling has any substance,” he said.
TRANSLATED BY IN SOPHENG