Football observers from around the world reacted with a mixture of astonishment and bemusement after Japanese football icon Keisuke Honda was yesterday unveiled by the Football Federation of Cambodia as the new General Manager of the Cambodian national team.
Unveiled at a press conference at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in the Cambodian capital, Honda said he was excited at his first foray into coaching and learning more about the unique challenges faced by budding young footballers in the kingdom.
“I have a two-year contract but in fact it’s like there’s no contract, said the former AC Milan midfield maestro. “I will not be present at all matches, but Melbourne [Victory] knows the situation and has understood my choice. I hope I can be here many times.”
“I will visit local areas and I want to know what’s going on, the economic situations and [how it affects] the kids, added Honda.
“‘I’ve just signed the new contract with Melbourne [Victory]. I’m going to continue as a player. But I asked the Football Federation [of Cambodia] whether I can help coach the national team even while continuing my playing career. The federation answered that if you consider it seriously, we can give you a serious offer. I guess such a contract has never been made and I appreciate their creation of such a unique role.”
Honda will also be acting as a cultural ambassador, highlighting the natural beauty of a kingdom renowned for its UNESCO-listed World Heritage site Angkor Wat.
“I’ve been here many times and got to know many fabulous things here. Cambodian culture and the honesty of the Cambodian people. They are hard working and in that sense similar to Japanese people. I’d like to show the world the beauty of Cambodia and its people,” Honda explained.
Sitting alongside Honda, President of the Cambodian Football Federation, Sao Sokha, revealed that the decision to nominate the former Japanese player hinged on two key points.
“Keisuke Honda leading the Cambodian national team is very important for two reasons. One is to create a clear Cambodian national style of football,” said Mr Sokha, who is also Cambodia’s National Military Police Commander.
“The second point is to help spread Cambodia’s culture to the world. I would like to thank Mr. Honda, he volunteers to contribute to the Cambodian Football Federation, and especially to our national team. We are aware that Honda is busy but he still tries to help Cambodia.”
Mr. Sokha clarified that Honda would not be accepting a salary from the Federation, a gesture they appreciated. “He is so graciously volunteering his time to help but the Federation of Cambodia will pay all travel, accommodation, and work expenses,” said Mr. Sokha.
FFC representatives stated the capture of Honda’s services would also help the team gain much-needed experience as the 2023 Phnom Penh SEA Games draws ever nearer.
The 32-year-old central midfielder currently plies his domestic trade for Australian outfit Melbourne Victory having signed a contract with the club a week ago. A Victory spokesman clarified that the club was supportive of Honda despite the possibility of clashes with the 2018/19 A-League season.
A-League.com said that it understood Honda would hold a video conference once a week from his Melbourne base enabling him to turn out for the A-League club but attend to Cambodian coaching duties.
However, due to his lack of coaching licences, reports suggest the role of the head coach will be taken up by Argentinian Felix Agustín Gonzalez Dalmas with Honda providing tactical advice in his role as GM. This could not be verified with representatives at the FFC.
Honda’s first visit to the kingdom took place in 2015 during his nation’s 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying group stage qualifiers which pitted the Angkor Warriors against Honda’s Samurai Blue at Phnom Penh’s National Olympic Stadium. He duly netted a goal as Japan ran out 2-0 victors on the night to secure their spot at the top of the group ahead of second-placed Syria.
He returned in June 2016 as part of the inauguration of his eponymous Honda Soltilo Soccer School and a later three-day trip a year later allowed him to take a closer look at the school and take in a little of the Cambodian football scene.
Soltilo Familia Soccer School is a network of football training clubs established by Honda in 2007. It has since expanded to 65 football schools with over 4,000 students around the world including schools in his native Japan, China, the United States and now Cambodia. Honda has played a role in football development in Cambodia through his involvement in Cambodian first division side Soltilo Angkor – formerly known as Siem Reap Angkor FC.
Writing in a column for the Player’s Tribune, Honda expounded on his fondness for football development and for Cambodia.
“I’m especially proud of our professional soccer teams in Cambodia (Soltilo Angkor FC) and Uganda (Bright Stars FC) since these teams give kids who dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player the opportunity to have that dream. My interest in providing opportunities to economically disadvantaged athletes while playing soccer also led to me becoming an angel investor. This allows me to support big ideas, and startups, that that will hopefully make the world a better place,” it reads.
Honda said he would be calling on his European experience to help Cambodian players reach their full potential.
“Cambodian players have to improve. I’ve played football in Europe so I know they have to grow much more to reach that level, he said. “Last time I played against the Cambodian national team, I found some good young players among them,” he added.
Honda became Melbourne Victory’s marquee signing for the Hyundai A-League 2018/19 season, joining after varying degrees of success with Italian giants AC Milan, Russian club CSKA Moscow, and Mexican outfit Pachucha. He started his career at Nagoya Grampus in 2004.
He is widely recognised as among the best Asian players in recent years and has an impressive record in the blue shirt of Japan. He has earned over 90 international caps since 2008, played at the 2010, 2014, and 2018 FIFA World Cup, and won the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, where he was voted Player of the Tournament. He confirmed his retirement from international football following Japan’s elimination by Belgium at the 2018 Russia World Cup last month.
He is expected to be involved in Cambodia’s imminent 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign. Drawn in Group A, Cambodia 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.
Cambodia start their cup bid with a home game against Malaysia on November 8th in Phnom Penh. The competition will take place between November 8 to December 15 across 10 Southeast Asian nations.
In their 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.