Fusion of force and finesse is Lee Tae Hoon’s prescription for most of the Kingdom's footballing ills. The newly appointed head coach, who has nearly 12 years of playing and coaching experience in his native South Korea, brings with him a set of time-tested principles to turn Cambodia’s football fortunes around in his first international assignment.
The 39-year-old soft spoken but supremely confident Lee, who is the second South Korean coach to work for the Football Federation of Cambodia in the last three years, presents the picture of a tough taskmaster who knows every layer of his professional coaching cake.
He can hardly utter a word in the local language, but through his Korean-Khmer interpreter he sent out a strong message to the first assembly of his trainees last week: “I want you all to focus on your job like a laser, just as I will be doing.”
Lee also highlighted the importance of fitness. “Only a fit body can play well and think well and do things on the pitch that need to be done,” he added.
The coach, who had taken over the National reins from Australian Scott O’Donnell on a one-year contract, gave a stern assessment of the overall physical condition of the players. “I feel you are only 60 percent fit now. You ought to raise your level of fitness. I can see ability but the side needs to fine-tune skills with better technique. I can and will take care of that.”
Back home, Lee has been well regarded by peers and the press alike as an unsparing but understanding coach who had some marked successes both at club level and national level coaching stints. He had two separate one-year contracts with the national women’s team, first in 2005 and then in 2009. He played six seasons for Korea’s popular K-league team, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, as a self-described libero or free-roaming player.
“I had the good fortune of playing alongside two of my friends, Cho Jin Chul and You Sang Chul, who played in the World Cup, during my playing career,” said Lee.
But it is in coaching that he found greater pleasure and success. “The switch came about naturally,” said Lee. “I always wanted to excel in football. When I found myself short as a player, I decided I would make it up in coaching. I don’t know how well I have done, but I feel good about what I have achieved so far. I can say the best is yet to come.”
In an informal chat with the Post after a training session at the Olympic Stadium Sunday, the Korean tactician said he felt a little bit uncomfortable having to converse with the players through an interpreter.
“Direct interaction is always better, but it should not be a factor,” he said. “But I feel some times the crux of my messages could be lost in translation or unintentionally misrepresented. This is something we have to sort out in the weeks to come.”
Lee said he was rather surprised that Cambodian players were so “gentle”.
“In today's football you need to play tough,” he said. “This is where force mixes with skill. I am an advocate of total football. I feel every player has to pull his weight and play for each other rather than himself.
“Short passing is an effective way of building up and long balls are there to break up backlines, but to me a player must react to the situation and develop a good positional sense, wherever it takes him on the pitch. But the key to everything is an alert mind and able legs.”
As for conditioning, the coach is hell bent on raising the bar but is not expecting any spectacular heists from his team. “We cannot aspire for the moon yet. I would like to see the side reach out to the next level,” Lee said.
The coach sets out today with a squad of 25 players and five other officials on a 45-day training and friendly games tour of Vietnam in preparation for the Suzuki Cup qualifying tournament in Laos from October 16-24.