Prak Sovannara's team return to Southeast Asia’s football finals after
a four-year hiatus knowing that even a draw can be considered a good
Photo by: Thomas Gam Nielsen
From left: The Cambodia national football team’s assistant coach, Prak Vanny, and players Sam El Nasa, Sun Sampratna, Kouch Sok Mokpeak and Sok Rithy wait for their flight to Jakarta at Phnom Penh International Airport on Wednesday.
AFF SUZIKI CUP
Tuning in at home
Cambodia's Group A matches:
- Cambodia v Singapore
- Friday 6pm (Star Sports)
- Cambodia v Indonesia
- Sunday 8:30pm (Star Sports)
- Cambodia v Myanmar
- Tuesday 8:30pm (ESPN)
THE Cambodian national football team set off for the AFF Suzuki Cup finals Wednesday, knowing they face a monumental challenge on Friday as the unheralded side kick-off the group phase against defending champions Singapore.
Cambodia are back in the biennial tournament after missing the cut in 2006 and are hoping to build on a successful first-round campaign played in Phnom Penh six weeks ago that saw them qualify for Group A of the finals, where they join Indonesia, Myanmar and Singapore in Jakarta.
Laos, who emerged top qualifiers in October, enter Group B alongside Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Their group games were moved at the last minute from Bangkok to Phuket due to political turmoil in Thailand that shuttered the capital's international airport, which was overrun by anti-government protestors.
Cambodia have never beaten Singapore, though they drew with the physically larger champions in a friendly two years ago, and captain Kim Chanbunrith is under no illusions as to the task that awaits them in their quest for regional bragging rights and a US$100,000 purse.
"We cannot compare ourselves with these other teams because football is much more developed in their countries than ours," the 30-year-old said Wednesday as he waited with the 22-member squad to board their flight at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Kim Chanbunrith added, however, that a 21-day training clinic in South Korea prior to the qualifying round had improved players' skills significantly, and spirits were high ahead of matches against Singapore on Friday, Indonesia on Sunday and Myanmar on Tuesday.
After playing other pool members once, the top two teams from each group advance to home and away semifinals, with the finals being held over two legs on December 24 and 28.
Speed and unity
Khek Ravy, vice president of the Football Federation of Cambodia, said improvements seen in the top-flight domestic league this year signalled a more competitive national team in years to come.
"We are not as tall as the Singaporeans but we are fast and play well together," he said, adding that a victory would still be hard to come by.
"That we've reach the second round is good. If we will manage a draw with one of the teams, it will be better, and if we win a match, that will be outstanding."
Like Singapore, Myanmar and Indonesia have never been defeated by a Cambodian team, and their Fifa rankings reflect that.
At 174, Cambodia climbed eight places in the latest Fifa rankings but remains lowest among the competition's eight finalists, with group rivals Indonesia at 132, Singapore 136 and Myanmar ranked 158.
Singapore, who also won the 2004 edition, then known as the Tiger Cup, owe some of their dominance to a liberal nationalisation policy for athletes.
Under the country's so-called Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, foreign-born footballers are fast-tracked to play for the national team after only a few seasons in the domestic S League.
Khek Ravy said this program had improved both home-grown players as well as lifted Singapore's international results. He noted that the top striker Cambodia would face on Friday, the 39-year-old Aleksandar Duric, was originally from Croatia.
But Cambodia coach Prak Sovannara was determined to stay upbeat as the squad prepared to depart.
"This time we hope to a get a victory and make the Cambodian people happy," he said Wednesday.