National team coach Lee Tae-Hoon has never been under such intense pressure in his 14 months at the helm than he is now, days before Cambodia open their desperate bid to salvage a modicum of self-pride at the 26th SEA Games which kicks off its men’s football competition in Jakarta next Monday.
Adding to the anxiety over the make-up of the team is justifiable suspicions over its combat readiness for an event which is arguably the most prestigious for the countries in the Southeast Asian region.
Apart from a few fleeting moments of joy here and there, Lee has been less successful than he had hoped and the community aspired, to meld and weld Cambodia into a cohesive unit. He has managed to sort out some inherent weaknesses but has generally been unable to get the best out of the team.
Can the South Korean tactician turn Cambodia’s patchy form around in Indonesia and answer his ever growing critics on the pitch? In his own words, he is determined to do just that and prove his detractors wrong. His message to the team is chillingly simple: “bundle the negatives and throw them out before you take the flight.”
The away game against Laos in the World Cup qualifiers in July still haunts the coach. It was branded a national embarrassment at the time and Lee took a lot of flak for some of his tactical choices. But the controversy rumbled on in another form when armchair critics and self styled experts pounced on him with accusations of playing down the significance of the World Cup qualifiers.
The national coach to this day insists that his remarks were totally taken out of context. All he meant was that while World Cup qualifiers were a matter of pride for any country, the SEA Games was realistically a better target in the case of Cambodia.
In a quirky way, Lee now has to make those words work for the team in Indonesia.
The run up to the SEA Games campaign has not been as smooth and satisfying as the coach would have wanted. In last Friday’s narrow defeat by Nepal in the last of the warm up games, all of Cambodia’s familiar failings made an appearance as confirmation that the team still has an unsettled air about it.
Injury fears may have prevented some players to go flat out in that game, but what hit the eye was the home side’s apparent lack of focus, by all accounts a problem area for the coach.
“We need to do a whole lot better than this,” said Lee after the game, while allowing a margin for some players to be light on their feet.
“What bothers me the most is that we play well up to a point and then crack, unable to sustain the good work I have seen this happen many times and the recent BIDC Cup was an example, especially against Myanmar and Thailand.”
Cambodia’s history at the SEA Games makes for depressing reading. Having never progressed from the group stage and often struggled to make even a point, their achievements are dwarfed by those of giants like Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar, who collectively account for 23 golds over a period of nearly 50 years.
By a strange stroke of fate, Cambodia has been pushed into the toughest of the two groups. The feared ‘Group of Death’ is made up of 13-time champions Thailand, title holders Malaysia in sight of their sixth gold, Indonesia desperate to break their gold drought since 1991, and three times silver medallists Singapore. Cambodia’s track record makes it a pigeon among cats.
“It is a very tough group. It makes it that much harder. It is a huge challenge,” coach Lee said.
Even a team like Thailand, eight-in-a-row winners from 1993 to 2007, have expressed concern over this draw, arguing that a seeding format should have been in place. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have also made known their distaste for the composition of Group A.
In the midst of such accomplished teams, there is little room for Cambodia, who play Indonesia first on Monday. In intervals of two days, Cambodia play Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in that order, winding up their group fixtures on November 13.
Indonesian coach Rahmad Darmawan is of the opinion that a victory is critical for the hosts in the wake of internal conflicts at their football federation and the need to promote national unity. Indonesia, who last won gold in the 1993 Manila Games, hope to repeat their home success of 1987. “We have to respect all teams in this group,” Darmawan said.
Singapore’s lead up has been fraught with problems in team selections on the top which comes its poor showing in a four-team event in Vietnam. The Young Lions lost all three matches, 2-0 to Qatar U17s, 3-0 to a South Korean university side and 2-1 to Vietnam U23s.
With the national senior team luring away some of the key players, coach Slobadan Pavkovic didnt have the full squad to work with but those problems have now been cleared with three top players rejoining training.
Singapore, runners up in 1983, 85 and 89, are seeking to break the gold ceiling.
Malaysia ended Thailand’s dream run in the last edition and hope to retain that momentum. Though coach Kim Swee has been quite vocal in his criticism of the grouping, he has a well groomed side going into action. A 4-1 defeat of Laos in a recent friendly is just the kind of tune-up the coach has been looking for.
Thailand’s chief coach Prapol Pongpanich, meanwhile, is bent on re-establishing his team’s supremacy in the region. He has already sounded a note of caution that this group can exact the best and the worst.
Group B features 2009 silver medalists Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Timor-Leste, Myanmar and the Philippines. Vietnam and the Philippines will get the ball rolling tomorrow at 4pm at the Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, before Laos face Myanmar at 7pm. REUTERS