Q&A with Cambodia national team coach Scott O'Donell
The Australian football public would not know much about Scott O’Donell. The 42-year old New South Welshman is a former player who represented a few NSW Premier League clubs in and around Sydney before making the move to Malaysia as a 27-year old. Since then has played in Malaysia and Singapore and is currently in his second stint as head coach of the Cambodia national football team. tribalfootball.com caught up with O’Donell to discuss certain aspects of his footballing life along with the status of football in Asia and upcoming plans for the Cambodia team, otherwise known as The Royals.
tf.com: How did you get over to Asia in the first place? Was it purely for football or were you also interested in other things such as the culture, lifestyle etc?
SO’D: I first went to Malaysia in 1994. I had always wanted to play football full-time. At the time I was playing for Parramatta Melita in the NSL (National Soccer League) and teaching economics and business studies in Sydney’s western suburbs. When the opportunity came, I jumped at it. I was coached by former Chelsea player and manager Ken Shellito at Kuala Lumpur and had a relatively successful season. Parramatta loaned me to KL for the season and I came back to play the last few NSL games in 1995 under Washington Gonzales. After Parramatta were subsequently kicked out of the NSL for the 95/96 season, I signed for Tampines Rovers FC for the inaugural S-League season in Singapore.
I played for four seasons in Singapore before getting my coaching licenses back in Australia before commencing my coaching career at Geylang United. After Geylang, I was offered the Cambodian national coaching position in 2005. I jumped at the chance because my two daughters (Emma and Ellie) were adopted from Cambodia and we always intended to try and go back and live there one day, so it worked out well.
tf.com: Can you identify the major differences between football in Australia and football in Asia, predominantly in Cambodia where you are based now and in Malaysia and Singapore where you played?
SO’D: There is no doubt that the football in Australia is a lot more physical. The level of professionalism has also greatly improved compared to the old NSL. The A-League is light years ahead of the NSL. Technically, I don’t think there is a big difference between the better players in South East Asia and Australia. Professional football in Cambodia is in its infancy. We have a professional league and have foreign players but the standard is fairly average. Having said that, the competitiveness and the quality is slowly improving. A lack of youth development in years gone by certainly hasn’t helped.
Malaysian football has struggled over the last decade or so. When I first went there, there were Australian internationals like Darren Stewart, Alan Davidson, Alistair Edwards and Abbas Saad playing, the crowds were great and the press coverage was unbelievable. But it has gone downhill fast. There are no foreigners anymore, the crowds are poor and the media coverage is too. There are some very good players and hopefully the success they had at the SEA (South East Asian) Games last year will help kick-start Malaysian football. They have great facilities and a great passion for football.
The S-League has constantly struggled to get crowds. It is one of the best organised leagues in South East Asia. Most of the clubs are very well run but it struggles to compete with the English Premier League, which is hugely popular in Singapore. In the first year of the S-League, the crowds were good, it was a new league and like Malaysia, there were some very good foreigners like Vlado Bosinovski, Ernie Tapei, Ivan Kelic and some excellent foreigners from Croatia, Iran and Brazil. Unfortunately the quality of foreigners has declined and the interest seems to be waning. One of the benefits of the S-League has been the rise to prominence of the Singapore national team under Serbian coach Raddy Avramovic. The S-League has allowed more players to become professional players therefore giving Raddy more players to choose from. The standard is not bad. SAFFC (Singapore Armed Forces) have qualified for their second successive AFC Champions League, which I think, is a reflection of the quality of the S-League.
tf.com: What’s planned for Cambodia national team in the next six to twelve months? Do you envisage staying in the role or are you likely to move on?
SO’D: The Cambodian national team have the opening rounds of the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in early October as well as the Suzuki Cup (ASEAN Football Championships) qualifiers at the end of October in Laos. My current contract ends in May 2010. I will be having discussions with the Federation in the coming weeks and will see what transpires. I would love the chance to come back and work in Australia but as you know, full-time opportunities in football are fairly limited. I have had approaches from other clubs in the region but I have not confirmed anything yet.
tf.com: You have worked closely with the AFC. Have you seen an improvement in Asian football over the past few years and if so, what have been the main factors for this improvement?
SO’D: I really enjoyed my time as director of coach education at AFC. Without a doubt I think there has been a massive improvement in Asian football. I think Australia would be the first to admit that competing in Asia is not as easy as many first though. (AFC) President Hammam has been instrumental in implementing policies and projects aimed at improving football across Asia. The Japans and Koreans can look after themselves but countries like Uzbekistan and Vietnam are really taking off. Improvements in coach education, club administration, referees and overall professionalism is taking football in Asia to greater heights. I think Uzbekistan is a country to watch out for in the coming years. They have a group of passionate people working to improve all aspects of football and they have the money to employ the likes of (Luiz Felipe) Scolari and (ex-Brazil star) Rivaldo to help raise the profile of football. The AFC Champions League is also gaining in popularity and is great for the Australian clubs and players to travel across Asia to experience playing in different conditions against different styles of play.
tf.com: Do you look back on your time with Tampines Rovers (particularly) and other Asian clubs with fondness and would you suggest it worthwhile for Australian players to experience Asian football?
I really enjoyed my time playing in Asia. The opportunity to play full-time and to play with and against other foreign and local players was a challenge that I enjoyed. I think the 3+1 rule has definitely opened the door for more Australian players to play in Asia. Players like (Brendon) Santalab and (Joel) Griffiths are doing well and hopefully that will open the door for more Australian players in Asia. I think if you asked the players like Peter Bennett, Alex Duric, PJ Roberts and Santalab who all played for me at Geylang United, they would all say that they enjoyed their time playing in Singapore.
Playing for Tampines was very enjoyable. They are a real community club based in the east of Singapore. They have very loyal supporters who are very passionate. They have gone from strength to strength in recent years and have achieved a great deal of success under the chairmanship of Teo Hock Seng, a successful businessman in Singapore. With full-time playing opportunities in Australia being limited, I would strongly advise young players who have not yet been signed by A-League clubs, to head to countries like Singapore to gain some experience. Singapore is a great place to live and the Aussie boys would have no problems adapting to life in Singapore. There is some decent money in some of the other South East Asian league like Vietnam and Indonesia and the quality is good.