Coaching Cambodia - by Antony Sutton, Pictures by Andy Brouwer
When the Cambodian national football team lines up for Nokoreach – the national anthem – their Australian coach Scott O’Donell feels a pride that comes from having a strong, emotional bond to the country. Unlike many expatriates whose attachment to their temporary home is whimsical at best, O’Donell has a part of him that is as Khmer as the temples of Angkor and the waters of the Tonle Sap.
O’Donell’s football career started with a number of New South Wales State League teams where he made his mark as a rough and ready defender. From an early stage in his career he was open to plying his trade overseas and at 21 he was recommended to the Napier City Rovers team in New Zealand, where he spent a short time on loan. For an impressionable youth from Sydney, it was an exciting opportunity to play alongside Brian McAllister and Johnathon Gould; sportsmen who had played at the highest level in England.
Soon enough he found himself back in Australia as Raul Blanco – who he admits was “the best coach I played under” – saw enough potential to sign him for the National Soccer League (NSL) and O’Donell enjoyed several seasons in Sydney’s Western suburbs playing his part in one of the most attractive teams in the League. Football in Australia was very much a minority, part-time sport. O’Donell combined football with a teaching job and also coached the school team. With an eye to the future, he continued to work hard and slowly started acquiring his coaching badges.
His ambition for the game was far too great for him to remain in Australia and he was adamant to make it his profession. However, he wasn’t alone. Opportunities Down Under were limited and some of the biggest names of the time could be found playing in both Malaysia and Singapore. In 1994 he finally got the chance to join Kuala Lumpur. A few years down the line, he moved to Singapore. Living and working in the Lion City, he met a number of people who adopted Cambodian children and that got him, and his wife Margaret, contemplating over the idea. After making exhaustive enquiries in 1998, they decided to visit Cambodia for the first time and set in process the wheels for adopting themselves. They visited a number of orphanages in the city and met with relevant government departments before returning home victorious with an adopted daughter, Emma. Twelve months later Ellie was adopted and their Singapore home was filled with two bubbly toddlers.
In 2005 Scott returned to Cambodia. He had been coaching Geylang United in Singapore when the Cambodian Football Federation approached him and asked if he would like to take over their national team. “I have to say that I am very proud to be the national coach of the country where both of my daughters were born. I feel it is an honour,” he says. As for his plan for the team, O’Donell’s goals are realistic and long term. While most of the world are gearing up for the World Cup in South Africa, the coach is working hard to lead Cambodia on the road to the next World Cup, Brazil 2014, when they have their first qualifiers in October.
There is also the small matter of regional pride at stake in the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. Cambodia, one of the lower ranking nations in the grouping, will have to fight it out with East Timor, Brunei, Laos and the Philippines for the right to mix with regional powerhouses like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar, who have all previously secured the title. Work takes Scott all over the country scouting for young talent who can make the step up to the national team and one thing that stands out is the positive attitude of the young sportsmen. O’Donell marvels that while “We do not have the resources to prepare like most of our opposition, they have pride in playing for their country.”
As for his family, the O’Donells stay based in Singapore with constant trips to Cambodia and Christmases spent in Sydney. It’s a global lifestyle and one his daughters have adapted to. And while the two girls may not be “tossing a shrimp on the barbie” or dancing the ramvong in their spare time, they have their feet placed firmly in both cultures and the O’Donells are keen for that to continue.