A new domestic football season unfolds on Liberation Day under the shadow of a passing year of utter despair that was pockmarked by a string of disappointing results for the national team.
The first phase of the Kingdom’s most prestigious open tournament, the Samdech Hun Sen Cup, kicks off on Saturday at five provincial centres simultaneously.
This group stage will find eight qualifiers to join last year’s top eight Metfone C-League teams in the knockout phase, to be staged in Phnom Penh from February 5.
With a rich purse on offer, the event serves as a perfect season-opener and a challenging lead-up to the top-tier competition for well-heeled teams while giving greenhorn provincial sides their only opportunity to play alongside the best in the business.
As many as 20 provincial teams, split into five pools, are vying this year for the eight coveted spots open for them to make the last 16.
Conventional wisdom has it that provincial sides almost always find it hard to get past the premier-league hawks in the second phase.
But strangely enough, it's from this lopsided structure that the Hun Sen Cup derives its intensity, and it is every provincial side’s dream to shatter this ceiling.
With the 2011 slump haunting the national psyche, Cambodian football will be seeking to reverse the trend this year and there is no better stop than the Hun Sen Cup to begin looking for good rebuilding material.
“The first phase may be spread across provincial venues but as much as the federation, league clubs will be on the look out for player potential,” Football Federation of Cambodia spokesman May Tola says.
“So, for every player hoping to get attention, every phase of the Hun Sen Cup is an important trial run.”
The first week of the competition – from January 7 to 15 – is all about local match-ups to determine the passage to the pre-quarterfinals.
The five-team Eastern pool, hosted by Kampong Cham, has an exciting look, with two Metfone C-League promotees for the 2012 edition, Western University and Boeung Ket Rubber Field, locked in with Prey Veng, Svay Rieng Black Cats and the Kandal Province team.
Western University and Boeung Ket, who finished top two in the Division A1 to earn the right to replace last year’s C-League drop-outs Prek Pra Keila and Rithy Sen, are on the hunt for solid initiation.
Meanwhile, Baksey Chamkrong are huddled with Asia Europe University, Management and Economy University, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey in the Central zone, to be hosted by Siem Reap.
Kampong Chhnang will be the venue for the Western front, with Battambang and Pailin filling in.
Up north, Kratie entertains Mekong Kampuchea University, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng.
The three famous tourist-destination Ks – Koh Kong, Kep and Kampot – make up the Southern block of three teams.
The toppers of all five groups and the three second-place finishers with best scores make up the eight eligible for the second phase, beginning in Phnom Penh on February 5.
The eight C-League sides waiting for the knockout turn are Phnom Penh Crown, Preah Khan Reach, Naga Corp, Ministry of National Defence, Kirivong Sok Sen Chey, General Police Commissariat, Build Bright University and Chhlam Samuth.
Apart from the pride attached, the Hun Sen Cup offers a prize fund of more than 160 million riels (US$39,600), including several individual awards. The winning team picks up 80 million riels, the runners-up 40 million riels and the third-placed team 20 million riels.
The team standing out for Fair Play during the tournament will take home five million riels, the same amount the best team of four match officials will pocket.
The best goalkeeper and the top scorer will get one million riels.
Military Police-backed Preah Khan Reach broke a five-year jinx in the 2011 final to win the Hun Sen Cup for the first time with a 2-0 victory over Build Bright University.
Naga Corp took third place, ahead of Ministry of National Defence.
The recently married Khuon Laboravy of PKR top-scored in the last edition with a record 22 goals.
Ouk Mich, who has retired from PKR’s senior squad during the off-season and taken up a coaching position, was judged best goalkeeper in the competition.