Cambodia can count themselves fortunate after avoiding a tricky group after yesterday’s 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage draw in Indonesia.
The draw took place in Jakarta, Indonesia ahead of the premier regional football tournament with Cambodia avoiding tournament favourites Thailand in group B.
Cambodia – in group A – will face Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Laos while Group B is composed of Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, defending champs Thailand, and one of qualifiers Brunei or Timor Leste.
The winner of the Brunei Darussalam and Timor Leste tie will join nine other nations to make up the final field of 10 nations. The play-offs will be held between September 3 to 11 and will be decided over two legs, one in Brunei Darussalam and one in Timor Leste, for the last remaining spot in the tournament proper which will take place from November 8 to December 15 across 10 Southeast Asian countries.
In an attempt to boost popularity, this years’ competition will utilise a new format. The 10 qualified teams have been split in two groups of five and will play a round robin system with each team playing two home and two away fixtures.The format of the knockout round however remains unchanged, with semi-finals and the final played on a home and away format. The tournament’s climax is set for December 15.
Thailand are the competition’s most successful side having won the event five times, although Steve Darby, former coach of Thailand and Laos, told affsuzukicup.com that the Indonesians could be ones to watch.
“Any trip to the Bung Karno in Jakarta when the stadium is full is a daunting experience, said the Englishman. “We (Thailand) stayed in a hotel about 1 kilometre from the stadium but it took over an hour to get there! The fans are passionate and can be hostile.”
Coach Darby also said a trip to Cambodia and the conditions in Phnom Penh could prove a challenge for visitors.
“Going to Cambodia means playing on a plastic pitch, again with a huge crowd who are football crazy,” he explained.
In Cambodia’s last bid for the Suzuki Cup in 2016, the team then led by South Korean coach Lee Tae-hoon, bowed out of at the group stage after a 2-1 loss to Vietnam in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Their earlier defeats to Malaysia and Myanmar saw the side finish bottom of Group B.
While a decision has not yet been announced, the Cambodian Football Federation are expected to continue with experienced coach Prak Sovannara at the helm of the squad. He was also in charge of the senior squad at the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup qualification, but departed a year later for a return to club football.
He was appointed for a second stint in 2012, before various successful tenures at Nagacorp, Kirivong Sok Sen Chey and a title-winning season with Boeung Ket Angkor. He was back at the helm in two successive home defeats to Myanmar and Jordan last year.
His reappointment earlier this year was met with criticism from a vocal section of fans, who accused the Federation of looking backwards instead of taking a fresh approach – a characterisation that Sovannara has tried to combat.
He is currently overseeing the kingdom’s Under-21’s who are competing in the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy youth championship in Brunei but had earlier stated he hoped to rely on his contingent of foreign-based talent.
“We have four players – Chan Vathanaka, Keo Sokpheng, Prak Mony Udom and Thierry Chantha Bin – all of whom are playing professionally in Malaysia,” Sovannara told reporters, although since this interview it has been announced Sokpheng had parted company with his Malaysian employers. “Their experience will be a key factor in trying to helping us in the competition,” Sovannara added.
In 2016, the AFF Suzuki Cup was the most watched sports programme of the year in Indonesia and Thailand, with cumulative viewership figures of 35 million and 40 million respectively, eclipsing the ratings enjoyed by global sporting events like the UEFA EURO 2016.