The Cambodia national football team lost 2-0 to hosts India in the opening match of Group D of the final qualifying round for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on June 8.
The score has been overlooked due to controversy, outbursts of anger and strong criticism from Cambodian football leadership, managers and fans over a lack of attention and responsibility, disrespect and poor hospitality from hosts India and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
News of the controversy erupted just hours before the start of the qualifying campaign after Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) president Sao Sokha warned that the Kingdom would withdraw from the competition if an immediate official apology from hosts India – and the AFC – was not forthcoming.
Sokha, who is also Commander of the National Military Police, told a local media outlet that the AFC and the All India Football Federation, as well as the tournament organisers, had three hours to issue an apology to Cambodia after they failed to pay close enough attention to the Kingdom’s national football team over food, accommodation and, perhaps most grievously, Cambodia’s national flag.
“Within three hours, if the AFC, the Indian federation and the organisers refuse to issue an apology, the Cambodian players will fly home without one more match being played,” Sokha warned.
The AFC immediately issued an official letter acknowledging its poor organisation, as well as apologising for the poor hospitality received by the Kingdom’s national team, as well as for not flying the Cambodian flag in the stadium.
“It is regrettable that the Cambodian flag produced for the Competition does not meet the exact specification in terms of design and colour code. Therefore, kindly be informed that the AFC will be using the graphic of the national flag on the giant screen for upcoming matches in the competition, as has been the practice for the last two years of AFC competitions,” the statement said.
However, another controversy erupted during the pre-match build-up, with the national anthem of the Kouprey not being played in the traditional place of honour of the visiting team, but after host India’s anthem.
The match was postponed for up to seven minutes before the Cambodian national anthem was played. According to India’s SportStar magazine, a Cambodian official used his smartphone to play the national anthem because the sound operators could not find the visitor’s national anthem.
This lack of attention and poor hospitality as a host, as well as disrespect to Cambodia, seemed to add salt to Cambodia’s earlier wounds over accommodation and food issues as the team manager, public figures, players and supporters reacted angrily and asked for a clear explanation from the hosts.
Hun Many, president of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), also took to social media urging an explanation.
“Winning and losing is part of the game and the level of hospitality depends on the host country ¬– or where matches are played.”
“However, the bare minimum one can expect is that close attention will be paid to the national flags and anthems of visiting countries. I am following what happened at the Asian Cup qualifiers yesterday closely. Whether it was an error or a technical issue, I do hope an explanation will be given.
“As a citizen of Cambodia, I support the efforts of the [FFC] to find answers. I hope that precautions will be taken for future events, so that this issue/error will not happen to any other nation,” he added.
Many called on Sokha to continue to take all necessary measures to defend the national team while they are away on tour.
Boeung Ket general manager Be Makara said: “We will wait and see what action the AFC will take on the weakness and mistakes of hosts India.”
Cambodian striker Chan Vathanaka, who did not fly with the squad due to injury, also wrote: “I do not know if it was an honest mistake or if it was intentional, but if you respect us we will respect you. It you don’t respect us, don’t expect us to respect you.”
Nhem Prosith, news editor at VOY radio station, went on the attack, posting: “It is a shame for India and an insult to Cambodia. At the AFC event, the All India Football Federation acted like children.”
However, after the incident, the Indian federation issued an official letter, apologising to the Cambodian federation and the national team. The Indian side considered that not playing the national anthem was a technical error.
“We would like to apologise to the federation and the entire team for their hotel related issues as well as for the incident surrounding the playing of the Cambodian National Anthem,” it said in a June 8 statement.
“The issues related to playing the anthem were discussed with our technical team and they have informed us that it was due to a technical fault on the screen. Our entire team is working hard to see that such incidents are not repeated during the remaining matches of the competition and at the team hotels,” the statement added.