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O'Donell returns to national team


Australian coach Scott O’Donell returns to his former post as Cambodian national football team head coach after seventeen months working for the AFC as Director of Coach Education

THE Cambodian Football Federation (FFC) have turned to a man they already know well to elevate the national football team to new heights. Australian Scott O'Donell officially took over from Prak Sovannara as the full-time national coach Monday, some seventeen months after relinquishing the role.

O'Donell's return to the national side is timely. He quit his job as Director of Coach Education for the Asian Football Federation (AFC) in February and rejoined his family who were already living in Phnom Penh.

"From Monday, I am full time as the Cambodia national team coach, and I have a one-year contract," O'Donell said. "I've kept in touch with the Cambodian Football Federation whilst I was at the AFC and I have a lot of time and respect for FFC President Sao Sokha. He called me up a couple of weeks ago, and over dinner he asked me to become the full time coach again," he said, noting the good timing in regards to his return to Cambodia and his readiness for the challenge.

O'Donell claims that, although no formal targets have been set, he'll be seeking an improvement on past performances. "To get out of the group stages in the SEA Games will be real progress," he said, "Though it's not going to be easy when we compare ourselves against neighbouring countries."

The former no-nonsense defender, who played his football in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore before taking his first coaching role in charge of Singapore club side Geylang United in 2003, said he wanted everyone involved in the national team to be realistic with their expectations, have a belief in themselves and demonstrate full commitment.

O'Donell's two-and-a-half-year spell in charge of the Cambodian national team, which began in July 2005, was wrought with frustration, especially when just two weeks before the SEA Games in November 2005, and after six months of training, his team were pulled from and replaced by [Prince Ranarridh's] club side. "But I really enjoyed my time here [in Cambodia]," he said. "I had a good bunch of lads. They were willing to learn and I enjoyed working with the players. It was very rewarding watching the players improve and to see that the young players I introduced go onto become regular fixtures in the national team."

After the 2005 SEA Games incident, O'Donell was redesignated as Technical Director for six months, before returning to the national coach position until his departure in December 2007.

Since then he has worked as the Director of Coach Education for the AFC. "It was a great opportunity to travel and to make good contacts at conferences and meetings as well as being involved with coach development throughout the region, but I got tired of coming back every two or three weeks to see my family and I resigned," he confided. The AFC's loss will hopefully turn out to be Cambodia's gain.

The former Singapore S-league coach-of-the-year says his focus this year will be the SEA Games in Laos in December. "I need to identify the players who are eligible for the SEA Games, which is at under-23 level, and then formulate a plan to work towards the games," he said, adding that he hoped to obtain a squad of 25 players or more, depending on budgets.

O'Donell said he will hold training sessions twice a week during the domestic season, which ends in September, and then get the squad together full time for the lead up to the SEA games. "I will speak to some contacts I have about the possibility of arranging friendlies, but budgets will be a factor," he said. "I will have a number two [assistant coach], a number three, a goalkeeping coach and I already have them in mind," he said.

The Australian coach, who turns 42 two weeks today, has kept in touch with developments in Cambodia since his initial appointment. "I would come back every second or third week to see my family and if I had time I would watch some of the matches," he recalled. "Now I'm back, I've already seen a few players I'm interested in, but I need to know who is eligible for the under-23 team."

O'Donell has seen the benefits of continued development of the Cambodian Premier League. "I don't see 20-0 victories anymore," he noted. "It's all very evenly contested and that's only good for the league. This season has already thrown up a lot of upsets and that's good to see too.

"I would love to see Cambodian coaches improving their skills, and we can do that through the AFC, which I know the Federation here is keen to do. That will be a positive step forwards. More qualified coaches will improve the quality of Cambodia's players."

Photo by: ANDY BROUWER
Cambodian players Khim Borey (left) and Samrith Seiha (right) were just 17 years old when Scott O’Donell first selected them for the national team and have since featured prominantly in the squad.

O'Donell speaks optimistically about future youth talent in Cambodia. "I am a firm believer if players are good enough, they are old enough to play for the national team," he stated. "I don't care who they are, names or reputations, I will pick the best available players for my team.

"I see the way forward will be to make the under-23 team the nucleus of the Cambodian national team. I have full control over player selections and coach selections, I will have full say and that's how it should be. If there are Khmer players overseas in France, Australia or America who are eligible and they are good enough, I will be happy to select them if they are better than the players we have here."

O'Donell said he believed in discipline, both on and off the pitch, and taking training seriously to promote a strong work ethic. "Its no secret that a weakness with Cambodian players is that they haven't been able to match the physical strength of Indonesia and Thailand in the past," he admitted. "It will be up to me to get them physically prepared to play, as well as focusing on the tactical side."

"We have some great technical players here, but they haven't been coached enough. Most of the countries we face have had qualified coaching from a young age, whilst our players have effectively taught themselves," he said, assuring the Cambodian public that his players will give 100 percent for their country and for each other.

Despite becoming Cambodia's full-time coach, O'Donell's presence on ESPN STAR SPORTS as a football analyst will continue, but he promises it will not interfere with his national team duties. "I'm also a FIFA instructor and will be conducting courses for FIFA in Kuala Lumpur in June and the Cayman Islands in July," he said.

O'Donell's connections to Cambodia were already very strong, having first visited the Kingdom in 1998 to adopt his first child. "I've lived here since I was appointed coach in the middle of 2005," he said, "and though I was away for 14 months in Malaysia, my wife Margaret and adopted daughters Emma and Ellie have always remained here. It's our home."

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