For the first time in nearly a decade, Cambodia's National Football Team is well poised to bring home silverware from a major regional tournament, following a 2-1 win over a much favoured Myanmar side in the semifinals of the U22 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy at the HB National Stadium in Brunei Darussalam on Wednesday night.
And as Cambodia were scripting their story of pluck, perseverance and pride, Timor-Leste, the “Little Samba Nation”, were writing a glorious chapter in their own at the Track and Field Sports Complex, where they mastered Singapore 2-1 to set up a final showdown with the Young Warriors on May 5, in a matchup few would have dared predict when the event began on April 23.
Back in 2009, Cambodia won the four-team BIDC Cup, but ever since the team has been chasing shadows, often confined to appearances in the SEA Games and making it past the early stages of qualification for major events, making the second round of regional World Cup qualifying in 2018 and the third round of Asian Cup qualifying this year, but never quite threatening to land a big success.
But hard-working Ministry of National Defense midfielder Narong Kakada helped pave the way a Cambodian final appearance with a first-half brace that went unanswered after an own goal from defender Soeuy Visal just before the break.
Goalkeeper Keo Soksela and a sturdy defence effectively thwarted several attempts by Myanmar to claw their way back into the game in a fiercely combative second session, but the day unquestionably belonged to coach Prak Sovannara and his group of highly motivated players.
Playing down the significance of the own goal as just a hazard of defending, coach Sovannara credited the victory to the superb team spirit shown by the players.
Part of Portugal until 1975 and then Indonesia until the turn of the century, Timor-Leste beat Cambodia to win their first international match as an independent state in October 2012.
The footballing fortunes of the newest member of the South East Asian bloc have begun to look up over the past few years, and the team has now succeeded in reaching a final after a stunning second-half comeback against Singapore
Recovering from their 1-0 loss to Cambodia in the final Pool B tie, Singapore took a 34th minute lead through Ikhsan Fandi and held on to it until Timor-Leste turned the game on its head with two goals in two minutes from Rufino Gama and Henrique Cruz with a little over 10 minutes to go.
And now whoever wins the final on Saturday, a new name will enter the region's roll of honour, warning the better established teams that Cambodia and Timor-Leste should no longer be regarded as mere participants but now as real contenders.