The Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, the region’s premier festival of football, gets underway tonight with Cambodia hosting Malaysia for a tasty competition opener which is sure to captivate fans at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium.
Felix Gonzalez Dalmas, head coach of the national football team, speaking at yesterday’s press conference here in Phnom Penh, said that his team had been making good progress and were learning how the new coaching team expected them to play.
Dalmas said he learned a lot from the clash with Malaysia in their international friendly encounter last September, and he expected the team to be able to not repeat mistakes.
“It was a good game and we lost, he said of their September defeat to the Malaysians “But we learned a lot from the game. We saw our mistake and we tried to fix them,” he said.
Dalmas, acting in place of General Manager Keisuke Honda, claimed to have identified mistakes from his three friendly games in charge but would not reveal what they were for fear of giving an advantage to the visitors.
Dalmas said the squad was only just getting used to the many changes implemented but he expected an exhilarating fixture tonight.
“We’re happy to be here. We have worked hard in the past month but I think It’s going to be an exciting match. I hope that the fans keep supporting us,” said the Argentine.
A surprising absentee from the 23-man cup squad is Buriram United midfielder and 2017 Cambodia Football Awards MVP Chreng Polroth.
Known for his powerful shooting, Polroth is among the brightest young talents in the kingdom. His ability saw him make a switch to Thai Premier League giant Buriram United earlier in the season – one of only two Cambodians playing abroad.
He scored a long-range effort against old foes Vietnam during the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage, which was later voted as the best goal of the tournament. His omission has left many fans scratching their heads.
He fell out of favour with former coach Leonardo Vitorino for disciplinary reasons but was subsequently reinstated by interim coach Prak Sovannara.
Meanwhile, regulars called up to the squad include Prak Mony Oudom, Thierry Chantha Bin, Chan Vathanaka, and Keo Sokpheng, all of whom may call on their Malaysian Super League experience for an advantage. Chantha Bin, who plays for Terengganu FC and recently renewed his contract for a further year, is the only player of the quartet who survived the mid-season MSL cull which saw Vathanaka, Sokpheng, and Oudom shipped back to Cambodia.
Honda, who is continuing his playing career with Australia’s Melbourne Victory, has been conducting Cambodian coaching duties via video link but would not be making an appearance tonight as revealed by Dalmas yesterday.
“He won’t be here for this particular game but he’s still communicating with us and joins our meetings. [He] knows what’s going on. It’s different not to have him here but I don’t think it will affect us, said Dalmas. “Hopefully he’ll get to join us in the later games,” he added.He 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.
Meanwhile, Malaysian coach Tan Cheng Hoe said he would be expecting a positive result from his team.
“As you know, even though we beat them quite recently, he said sitting alongside his Cambodian counterpart yesterday. “But we still think that Cambodia is a difficult team and they are even stronger now. And because of their Independence Day they will not neglect this game,” he added.
The coach also explained that he had changed his squad significantly since that last meeting recruiting 10 new players to the squad.
Cambodia can count themselves fortunate after avoiding a tricky 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 qualifiers Timor Leste.
In an attempt to boost popularity, this years’ competition will utilise a new format. The 10 qualified teams have been split into 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.
Speaking to the Asean Football Federation, former Cambodia international Hok Sochetra said he was excited about the Suzuki Cup.
“It will be a great experience for us all and I really hope the new generation appreciate this chance,” said Sochetra.
Sochetra, who appeared in three editions of the tournament during his playing days, praised the passion of the modern-day Cambodian fan.
“There are thousands of supporters who will fill the stadium for an event like this. Wherever the players go, people recognise them,” he said. “I hope this year when we host AFF Suzuki Cup matches, there will be at least 20,000-30,000 people in our stadium because everyone is waiting for it.”
Tonight will see the debut of an Ultras fan group – Angkor Army. Ultras, named for their ultra-fanatical support, have been gaining visibility in the kingdom of late.
The 2016 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.
Cambodia’s AFF Suzuki Cup Squad
Goalkeepers: Um Vichet, Keo Soksela, Chea Vansak
Defenders: Seth Rosib, Chheng Meng, Hong Pheng, Sareth Kiriya, Soeuy Visal, Nen Sothearoth, Sor Piseth
Midfielders: Kouch Sokumpheak, Kouch Dany, Orn Chanpolin, Thierry Chantha Bin, Tit Dina, Sos Suhana
Forwards: Chan Vathanaka, Keo Sokpheng, Sin Kakada, Brak Thiva, Roueng Bunheang