The Cambodian U23 national team remain focused and confident ahead of their SEA Games opening match Friday against eight-time gold medallists Thailand
We are just a day away from the Cambodian U23 national team’s opening match as they fly the flag for their country at the 25th Southeast Asian Games in Vientiane. Football is the first competition to begin at the Games, and the Cambodian players arrived in the Athletes Village Sunday evening, after a tough two-day overland journey from Phnom Penh.
Drawn in Group A alongside the heavily fancied Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, and also East Timor, everyone has already written off Cambodia’s chances of progressing. Instead the opening game of Group A, Thailand against Vietnam, is expected to be the composition of the final on December 17. That’s assuming, of course, that Cambodia will roll over and provide the expected easy pickings for the higher-ranked teams, though anyone who witnessed the performance levels of the Cambodian team in the recent BIDC Cup tournament in Phnom Penh may have other ideas, and that includes the players themselves.
Thailand, the SEA Games football champions for the last eight competitions, will provide the opposition in Cambodia’s first game Friday. For an opening match, they don’t come any harder, but there’s a real strength of character and resilience about the Cambodian team under Scott O’Donell’s stewardship, and the players are determined to carry on the high standards they set themselves in the BIDC Cup.
Victories over V-Leaguers HAGL (twice) and Laos U23s gave the Cambodian team a huge confidence boost after their first match under O’Donell ended in a 6-0 drubbing by Singapore. Capturing the BIDC Cup in front of 30,000 of their own ecstatic supporters has breathed a sense of purpose and pride into the young Cambodians, and six weeks’ intensive training in Vietnam has only served to cement that collective unity.
Reflecting on their BIDC success, Cambodia’s captain, Sun Sovannarith spoke for his teammates when he said: “I felt so happy that we won and proud that the team’s performance has improved so much. The victory has given us great confidence for the SEA Games.”
The scorer of the winning goal in the BIDC Cup final was popular striker Kuoch Sokumpheak, and he too expressed his pleasure. “I was very happy when I scored the winning goal. I felt happy for myself and felt proud for my country. I think the victory lifted the soul of the nation because of our football success.”
His strike partner, and one of the youngest players in the squad, Keo Sokngorn was equally upbeat. “For Cambodia to win, it made me so happy that we became champions of the BIDC Cup,” he stated. “All our players played very hard and very well. And it felt good to play in front of so many people at the Olympic Stadium.”
That was then, and this is now as Cambodia prepare to face a Thai team under the direction of Englishman Steve Darby, who is assistant to national team boss Bryan Robson. Expectation is high that the nation will add another SEA Games gold medal to their collection, but try telling that to the Cambodian players.
“Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia are all good teams but I don’t worry about playing against them,” remarked teenage Keo Sokngorn, who is also the captain of the national U17 team. “All I know is that I will play hard and my best. I want to win.”
Kouch Sokumpheak is similarly focussed ahead of Friday. “I won’t say we will win, but I will try my best and I really want to score goals against Thailand for my country,” he asserted.
The final word goes to the captain, Sun Sovannarith, who missed the birth of his first child, a girl, on Monday because of his involvement in the SEA Games. “The difference between us and Thailand is that they are big and they understand each other very well, as they play together for a long time,” he noted. “They have more experience and they play in a very good, strong league in Thailand. Win or lose, I don’t know, but I will fight 100 percent for my country until I die.” That sense of passion and determination could just provide an upset to the competition’s hot favourites on Friday.