As billions watch the World Cup hosted in Asia for the first time ever, the dream of soccer is just beginning again in Cambodia. The national team is currently ranked near the bottom in the world of football, but my father tells us stories of the great Khmer players of the past. In a country torn by war, organized football was virtually lost during the political unrest of the past two decades.
Under leadership of Cambodia Football Federation president Khek Ravy, football is growing again in the country. Since rejoining the Federation International Football Association (FIFA) in 1994, Cambodia has made steady progress in international competition and in the development of young athletes. Sports have received support from both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.
Last year, FIFA made a substantial contribution to help construct a technical and administrative center near Pochentong Airport in Cambodia. The center will consist of a practice field, administrative facilities and various accommodations. The program is estimated at over $500,000 and scheduled for completion later this year. The old but newly renovated Olympic Stadium now has a capacity of 50,000 seats. The stadium in Phnom Penh was the site for several Cambodian World Cup qualifying games in 2001.
Although Cambodia was held scoreless in all of their World Cup qualifiers in 1997, they built on the experience gained from their first FIFA tournament. Later that year, the team competed at the South East Asian (SEA) Games and won two matches including wins against Brunei and Myanmar. The victories were the first two wins in international competition for Cambodia since the 1960s.
During the World Cup qualifiers in 2001, Cambodia was placed in a tough group. Although, most of their matches were lopsided losses, the national team played well in a 3-1 loss against the heavily favored China side. Cambodia also had a draw against Maldives, their first ever World Cup point. The strong effort against Maldives was partly inspired by the return of Cambodia’s best player to the national team.
Hok “Jet” Suchetra left the national team prior to the World Cup qualifiers to join a Cambodian cell phone company. A football player in Cambodia only earns $100 per month. Sochetra took up the game at the age of 20.
“He’s a great talent,” national team coach Joachim Fickert said. “Unfortunately he started a little bit late in football. If Jet had played for 10 years he would be one of the world stars in football.”
Suchetra will remain on the team and practice fulltime for the upcoming 2002 Tiger Cup. The tournament will be co-hosted by Indonesia and Singapore. The Tiger Cup is played biennially among the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). With the addition of Suchetra and rising young star Chea Makara, we can expect Cambodia to be more of a force on the international scene.
The future of football looks strong in Cambodia. Popularity for sports is growing again. Cambodia has been awarded to be the host for Tiger Cup 2004. During the recent ASEAN Under 20 tournament held in Cambodia, almost every match had an overflow of fans crowd the 7,000 seat capacity Old Stadium in Phnom Penh. More people stood at both ends of the field where there were no seats. Finally, youth sporting programs have gained strong support and recognition from the government of Cambodia.
“A top priority is to assist with sports program development within schools and our youth associations,” said Tol Lah, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sport.Making their first appearance in the World Cup this year was another small nation. Fans in the country of Senegal were celebrating on the streets as their national team shocked the world by defeating France, the defending world champions. As I watched that match end, I wondered when Cambodia would make their debut on the world stage. The moment would be both historic and symbolic. Past politics would be forgotten and a new unity would be found among all Cambodians. The national team would put Cambodia back on the football map and hope back in the hearts of many. Cambodian flags around the world would fly high with pride. My father continues to tell us stories of the great Khmer players of the past. Soon I hope that my children and I will be able to watch new stars together.