Cambodia national team head coach Lee Tae Hoon watches his players stretch off during their last home training session on Thursday before departing for the Maldives and the AFC Challenge Cup. Photo by: Sreng Meng Srun
Male, The Maldives
After spending six hours at Kuala Lumpur International Airport before a flight of over four hours on Saturday, the 20 players and seven officials of the Cambodian national football team finally arrived in the Maldives ahead of their participation in group C of the AFC Challenge Cup.
Cambodia play their opening game against the hosts at 11pm tonight Cambodian time at the Rasmee Dhadu Stadium. The teams have previously met in 2001 for the preliminaries of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the finals of which were held in Korea and Japan.
The first leg in Male saw the Maldives crush the visitors 6-0 before drawing the return leg 1-1 in Phnom Penh. Striker Sam El Nasa and assistant coach Ieng Saknida are the only surviving members of that squad still involved with the current Cambodian national team.
On arrival in the Maldives, Cambodia’s head coach Lee Tae Hoon admitted he knew little of the history between the sides when questioned by local journalists, but remained confident of success in the tournament.
“Now we have a strong squad. We have changed a lot,” he said.
“So I believe that my players can do better than in the past, despite just a couple of days of preparation [due to the conclusion of the Hun Sen Cup the previous weekend].”
“Now we’ve climbed from 166th to 154th in the FIFA World rankings. It’s a good achievement for us,” he said.
Ouk Mich, Cambodia’s captain and goalkeeper, also noted their recent improvement. “We cannot compare to what happened last 10 years,” he said during a press conference in Male yesterday.
“I believe that we can take revenge on the home side.”
Despite having a population of under 400,000 Maldives are one of the best teams in South Asia, and were crowned champions of the 2008 South Asian Football Federation Cup after beating India 1-0 in the final. In 2009, they were runners-up in the same tournament as India gained revenge with a 3-1 victory after penalties.
They also drew 0-0 at home with South Korea in a 2006 World Cup qualifier played in 2004. Their newly appointed coach Andrés Cruciani played as a defender for the U20 Argentina national team in 1985 and coached Bangladesh from 2005 to 2007.
Captain and striker Ali Ashfaq is considered one of the best players to come from the Maldives, and is hailed as the playmaker of the team by Maldivian journalists. He spent one year with DPMM FC of Brunei before returning home in 2008 to join VB Sports Club, which have won the last two seasons of the domestic Dhivehi League.
The highly decorated player, nicknamed “Dhagandey” meaning Man of Steel, asserted that his team carried a significant home advantage over Cambodia. “Our team will play well because of our supporters,” he said yesterday.