The big European teams summer in Asia on a regular basis but never make it to Cambodia despite the fact that Phnom Penh is a more passionate football hotbed than sleek megacities such as Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul. Cambodia is, however, slowly emerging in football with big crowds, young talent and, just this month, the hosting of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. This mini-Olympics for a region of 650 million has been a sign that the country can not only stage major sporting events but can challenge bigger regional rivals such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia on the pitch too.
It has been a long time coming but then few countries have had a harder journey. Three years after achieving independence from French Indochina in 1953, the Angkor Warriors played their first ever international against Malaysia. Just 16 years later, the team reached the last four at the 1972 Asian Cup, helped by three goals from the star striker Doeur Sokhom, losing 2-1 to eventual champions Iran.
Then came the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary communist group that deposed the US-backed Khmer Republic in 1975. “To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss,” was one of their mantras. Estimates vary as to how many Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s rule but the numbers – mainly between 1.5 to 2.5 million people, then around a quarter of the population – are all unimaginable. Many players lost their lives too, including Sokhom. A Vietnamese invasion in 1979 deposed the regime but that was not the end of the misery with instability and conflict continuing for years.
Unsurprisingly, Cambodian football had fallen a long way behind. Closing the gap is going to take more time, which is one reason why the SEA Games are a big deal. The tournament, which involves 12,000 athletes, gives countries in the region who do not win that many medals at the Olympics a chance to get some serious podium time. Indeed, the competition is infamous for host nations, who have some leeway in choosing the events, picking ones they are really good at. Unlike most past hosts, Cambodia have not managed to top the table but given they had collected just 78 gold medals in 21 previous attempts, adding 81 in the past two weeks is some going.
There were no medals in football, a tournament reserved for under-22 players. Group A started with a 4-0 demolition of Timor-Leste but the chance of a second appearance in the last four disappeared with a 93rd-minute equaliser from the Philippines in the next match. With Indonesia sewing up top spot, Cambodia had to beat Myanmar to take second and move into the semi-finals but lost 2-0.
It is all about building for the future, though, on and off the pitch, with much of the sporting infrastructure, including a new 60,000 stadium, coming courtesy of Chinese investment. There has also been Japanese involvement thanks to Keisuke Honda. After opening a number of football schools in the country, the well-travelled star, while still playing for Melbourne Victory, announced in 2018 that he was going, when time allowed, to coach Cambodia free of charge. A lack of licences meant that he could not be head coach but the 36 year-old, with a watch on each wrist to tell the time where he was and back in Tokyo, called most of the shots and over time, there was a more fluid and aggressive style emerging.
Players such as Chan Vathanaka and Keo Sokpheng were two of the first to head overseas to play in Malaysia, a major step forward. Since then there has been a greater focus on more systematic youth development and there are high hopes for younger talents such as the speedy striker Sieng Chantea and the midfielder Chou Sinti.
There are still problems. Despite the love for the game – few Asian nations would draw 50,000 for a friendly against Singapore as the Angkor Warriors did in 2016 – there is still not enough investment at the grassroots. Rumours and reports of corruption are never far away and politics is a constant presence. Sao Sokha, described as a ‘world-class human rights abuser’ by US-based NGO Human Rights Watch in 2018, is not only the national military police chief but the head of the Cambodian FA. After the team failed to make it out of the group, he was asked not to resign from the latter post by Hun Sen, prime minister of 38 years. The one-time Khmer Rouge commander has been known to stream national team games on his own Facebook page and the Hun Sen Cup is a major domestic tournament.
So Sokha stayed but Honda has gone, though not before revealing his next plans on social media. “As a coach, I’m interested in Oman, NZ, UAE, Thailand and some other countries which want to play next World Cup in 2026,” he wrote.
Cambodia are not going to be in North America but the former Milan man told them, as he said goodbye, to follow their dreams. Like his, theirs is the World Cup. That is not going to happen as soon as 2026 but given where Cambodia has come from, continuing to challenge in Southeast Asia will do for now.