Cambodia’s top football league, sponsored by telecommunications company Metfone, has grown bigger by two teams this year and, in the hope of making it better and brighter, the Football Federation of Cambodia has broken new ground in allowing a foreign franchise into the fold for the first time in its 32-year history.
There are 12 teams on the roster for the 2014 season, which kicks off at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday and ends on August 31.
With the scrapping of the Super Four play-offs this year, the championship title goes to the end-of-season table-toppers, who also get a ticket to the AFC President’s Cup.
But to whip up competitive interest past the league phase, two compact trophy events for the top and bottom four finishers have been introduced in the form of the FFC Cup and the FFC Challenge Cup.
In some select cases, the federation will try out a phased introduction of home and away matches this season.
“We want to make a start. Not all teams have their own home pitches, but where there is a possibility we will try and schedule matches away from either the Olympic Stadium or the Old Stadium, which have been two of our regular venues,” FFC spokesman May Tola told the Post.
The Cambodian franchise of Albirex Niigata Singapore, a subsidiary of a Japanese-based entity, will enjoy the rare distinction of being the first foreign team to figure in the Cambodian league.
But quite unlike its Singapore unit, Albirex Niigata Phnom Penh will be made up of locals with five Japanese players filling the stipulated overseas players quota.
There is also a strong Japanese element in TriAsia Phnom Penh, who have moved up from Division A1 to the mainstream this season.
The team is under the care of head coach Yoshioka Daisuke of Japan, who for close to two years coached the national U16 side here.
TriAsia will unveil their Japanese import Kihara Masakazu, who was in his nation’s U18 team nine years ago. Having played in the J-League Division 1 last year, Masakazu could be central to the team’s fortunes.
For a side which won the league after years of frustrating wait, Svay Rieng would be keen to zealously guard that treasure. Though their pre-season preparations went well enough, the team’s opening match in the ongoing Ho Chi Minh City Cup was a huge body blow, beaten as they were 6-0 by Vietnamese team TDCS Dong Thap.
Despite his bitter disappointment with the result, coach Sam Vandeth has promised fans that the team will not let them down in both the Hun Sen Cup and the league.
Svay Rieng’s greatest loss after winning the championship for the first time was their star striker Khun Laboravy, last year’s winner of the Golden Boot, who moved over to Boeung Ket, the 2013 beaten finalists.
While the Kampong Cham-based side, who scaled the league summit in their debut season in 2012, may have won over Laboravy, they are all the poorer for losing out Bisan George, last year’s
second best scorer, to arch-rivals Phnom Penh Crown, who have also roped in arguably the country’s best goalkeeper, Sou Yathy, aside from signing some exciting new foreign prospects.
Bringing in S.League champs Tampines Rovers to Phnom Penh and giving their own team some quality time and a friendly with the Stags might have sharpened Naga Corp’s pre-season preparations as they hope to regain their league supremacy.
The two-time champions have signed two South Koreans as well as one player each from Japan, Guinea and Ivory Coast to add muscle to the team.
Striker Kim Sang Min and midfielder Jang In Yong, both in their early 20s, are vastly experienced players. The 1.91-metre-tall Kim turned out last year for Gangneung City FC, while the slightly shorter Jang has played in Brazil, China, Australia and Japan.
Versatile Japanese player, 36-year-old Masahiro Fukasawa, is widely expected to strengthen the Naga midfield. Masa, as he is popularly known as, has played for teams in Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Argentina, Singapore and Hong Kong.
While retaining the services of 18-year-old Anderson Zogbe of Ivory Coast for his second season, Naga have brought in 19-year-old Barry Lelouma from Guinea to complete their foreign quota for the season.
Among the heavyweights, Crown have won the league title more than any. Of the four triumphs to their credit, two came back-to-back in 2010 and 2011. Naga last won the league in 2009.
In two appearances, Boueng Ket won in 2012 and were runners-up the following year to Svay Rieng, who in previous years played as Preah Khan Reach.
The 12 competing teams this season are (in alphabetical order):
Albirex Niigata Phnom Penh FC
Asia Europe University
Build Bright United
Kirivong Sok Sen Chey
National Defense Ministry
Phnom Penh Crown
TriAsia Phnom Penh