The government wants Cambodia’s footballers, seen here in a match prior to the 24th Southeast Asian Games last December, to mirror the country’s recent economic success, says national coach Yoo Kee Heung, who will lead the team for the next three years.
For South Korean Yoo Kee Heung, the new head coach of Cambodia’s national soccer team, the Kingdom’s absence of a respectable recent past in the sport is no reason to be pessimistic.
Games may be too few and results too disappointing for match days to become ritualized and capture the attention of the capital city, yet soccer remains Cambodia’s most popular sport and that alone is motivation enough to build the sport here, says Yoo.
Yoo, 60, has been gifted to Cambodia for three years from a Korean firm that is paying his $100,000 yearly salary. He replaced last December Australian Scott O’Donell, the head coach for two and a half years, when the Football Federation of Cambodian could no longer afford O’Donnell’s contract.
Yoo sees his presence in Cambodia as part of the government’s desire to enhance the country’s prestige.
“The country is getting wealthier and so I think the government wants a better team for the people,” Yoo said, adding it is a process he is happy to be part of.
Yoo is no stranger to coaching international featherweights. After paying his dues in his native country – as a national player in 1974 and 20 years later as a member of the coaching staff at the 1994 World Cup – he went on to coach Nepal and Bhutan.
Since returning from a more than 20-year hiatus from international competition during the civil war, Khmer Rouge and State of Cambodia years, the national side has been pummelled and cash-strapped.
"They all have jobs, so they train one hour and then have to leave for work."
– Yoo Kee Heung, national soccer coach
Sitting 183rd in the FIFA world rankings, Cambodia has scant success to build on. Out of seven matches in 2007, Cambodia lost six and drew one, racking up a 21-goal defecit in doing so.
“After looking around at the team, I’ve seen many, many things I need to improve,” said Yoo, singling out stamina as a key weakness.
Further down the road, Yoo said, he would like to see a fundamental shift in the way soccer is approached by professionalizing the sport here. Forced to work fulltime jobs to support themselves, the national team’s players struggle to commit to training.
“They all have jobs, so they train one hour and then have to leave for work,” Yoo said.
To combat this, he intends to push for government salaries for the roster’s 18 players so they can concentrate on their sport fulltime, not only on match days.
He said he will implement a new four-hour daily training regime that includes an hour of running in the early morning, lifting weights for an hour before lunch, and two hours of ball training in the late afternoon – at either Old Stadium or Olympic Stadium, where they host matches.
Yoo has also made plans for the team’s best players to train with club teams in South Korea.
“The Cambodian team doesn’t work together yet,” he said. “The Koreans make short passes and don’t hold on to the ball; they work as a team. The Cambodians can learn from this."
As well as polishing the players’ skills, training abroad will give them a taste of the money surrounding professional football, he added.
And Yoo has another trick up his sleeve: he plans to scout young players by touring high schools and working with any promising talent he encounters.
“I will train them myself and see what they can do,” he said.
Soccer has a longer history in Cambodia than many of today’s Asian powerhouses. France exported the sport to the Kingdom around the turn of the 19th century and a legitimate domestic squad had been developed by the 1960s when most countries in the region were still finding their stride.
A return to the past will not be easy. Cambodia lost their first match under Yoo in January, going down 3-2 at home to South Korean side Suwon City FC.
More big Asian names could be coming to town, however, as the Asian Football Confederation looks into the possibility of Cambodia hosting the 2008 AFC President’s Cup. A feasibility study is underway.