Monday, February 28, 2011

Less profile please

Naga in yellow, 3-2 winners over the Police
Referees are supposed to get through a game without being noticed but in Cambodia that's rarely the case. Instead, anyone would think they wanted to be the center of attention based on their propensity to flash their colourful cards at all and sundry and to make game changing decisions that few on and off the field agree with. Thong Chankethya irritated both sides in Saturday's Crown versus BBU match, only for his colleague Yien Kivatanak, to do exactly the same the following day, as Naga Corp scraped through 3-2 over National Police Commissary. But it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who watched the C-League last season as these two referees were the busiest of the card-happy officials, with Chankethya managing to pull-off the award as the best referee of the campaign, which I must admit caused me a few chortles out loud. Anyway back to Kivatanak, who I believe is the son of one of the football federation officials, and his determination to spend his evening writing reports, having booked 7 players in the Naga and Police teams as well as giving an early bath to two Police players, Touch Pancharong and Sophal Udom. Did it impact on the result? - of course it did with the game all square at 1-1 after the end of regulation time, Naga had nosed ahead in the 2nd minute of extra-time before Pancharong was shown a straight red for kicking out at Sun Sovannrithy on 103 minutes, though at the time I thought it was accidental. Sovannrithy had moments before kicked the ball away when Kivatanak blew for a Police free-kick and Pancharong was already swinging his leg to take the kick quickly when he caught the Naga man, who went down as though he'd been shot. The referee wasted no time in flashing the red card. Afterwards, I asked Pancharong if he meant to kick the player and he said he was just trying to take a quick free-kick as his team were behind. The 2nd red card was for a 2nd cautionable offence when Sophal Udom went nose to nose with a linesman over a throw-in and Kivatanak responded to the linesman's flag-waving with a yellow card, followed by a red. At least Udom didn't hit the referee this time as he did last season.
This Hun Sen Cup quarter-final was all Naga early doors and Kop Isa opened the scoring on 34 minutes with a neat finish from Teab Vathanak's cute pass. The Police team, who will be new boys in the C-League this coming season, came close near the break but Naga kept the lead until 57 minutes when Sophal Udom's shot got a wicked deflection off a prostrate Om Thavrak and looped over the flailing arms of Mak Theara in goal for 1-1. Sun Sovannrithy got on the pitch before the leveller for his first game in months and gave the Naga attack some fresh impetus, twice going close to restoring their lead. Full-time came with the scores still level though most of the players must've been tired through all the play-acting and rolling around the floor they'd put us through in the 90 minutes. The two teams of stretcher-bearers must've been knackered. Just two minutes into extra-time, Teab Vathanak ducked low to head Meas Channa's near post cross past keeper Chanraksmey before referee Kivatanak took a hand in proceedings to issue two red cards to leave Police without a hope. That was compounded when Vathanak broke away in time added on and fed Chhim Sambo, who rounded the keeper and rolled his shot in to make it 3-1. A final flourish from the Police saw Ieng Tine lash in a drive after Long Nasy had struck the post for a consolation, only for Kivatanak to blow for full-time before the game could restart. Naga's prize for the victory is to meet Preah Khan Reach in next weekend's semi-final.
National Police Commissary lost out narrowly
Referee Yien Kivatanak concentrates on getting the pre-game toss-up correct, watched by the captains

Laboravy on song

Preah Khan Reach in all red
Everyone expected Preah Khan Reach to dominate Prek Pra Keila in the first of the Hun Sen Cup quarter-finals on Saturday and that's how it turned out after PKR finally overcame some stubborn resistance. In fact Prek Pra took the lead on 7 minutes when Sok Rithy slipped leaving Mat Hasan to cut inside his marker and fire in a bobbling shot that took a wicked bounce over the outstretched arm of Ouk Mic to give the underdogs a shock lead. They looked like carrying the advantage into the interval before Khuon Laboravy, who is making this tournament a personal goalscoring crusade, netted an equaliser on 40 minutes. PKR's Moul Daravorn caught everyone out with an early cross except Laboravy who has a nose for goal these days and he fired his drive into the roof of the net with some aplomb. There was still time for Prek Pra's Sos Souhana to blast high and wide from just eight yards as the referee blew his whistle for half-time.
PKR applied the pressure as the 2nd half began and on 57 minutes Tum Saray robbed a defender and slid the ball under the onrushing Yok Ary for their second goal. Prek Pra committed suicide by pushing too high up the pitch leaving way too much space between their last defender and the keeper, and Preah Khan exploited their defensive game plan. With 73 minutes on the clock, Saray fed Phanny Y Ratha and he lobbed his shot over Ary to put PKR firmly in the driving seat. Two more goals from Khuon Laboravy in injury time sealed the result at 5-1 in Preah Khan's favour and put him on 19 goals for the tournament, way ahead of anyone else. Suon Veasna sent Laboravy clear and he finished with the confidence of a man in form for his 2nd goal and then rounded off his hat-trick with a gorgeous half-volley after Chea Samnang's effort rebounded to him off the cross-bar. At the moment, the national team striker can do no wrong. PKR would meet the winners of the Naga v National Police game in next week's semi-final.
The youthful Prek Pra Keila teamPKR goalscorer Phanny Y Ratha

Kicking every ball

PPCFC starting line-up v BBU. [Back Row LtoR] Sophana, Tiny, Bunchhay, Dara, Sothearith [Front row] Pheng, Narong, Narith, Sokumpheak, Ratana, Chaya
Phnom Penh Crown have just signed three new players but first things first, that Hun Sen Cup quarter-final defeat against BBU on Saturday. To say everyone at the club is gutted is an understatement. Even though Crown dominated the match, enjoyed more possession and better goal opportunities, they couldn't put the cup tie to bed, even when BBU went down to 10-men, and paid a heavy price for not converting their penalty kicks. You knew exactly what it meant to BBU with all their jumping around and hollering, they never believed they could beat Crown but when Chhun Sothearath's penalty kick hit the back of the net, their wildest dreams came true. The first half of regular time was easily the highlight of the tie. Four goals and both times that Crown got their noses in front, BBU didn't give them a chance to consolidate their lead with quick-fire equalisers. A Sun Sopanha free-kick sailed inches wide and Kouch Sokumpheak's weak shot was cleared off the goal-line before Phoung Narong guided home a half-volley from the edge of the box on 12 minutes to give Crown the lead. Chan Chaya's header from Sopanha's corner was blocked and cleared only for Narong to whip his nicely-executed shot over everyone's head and into the net.

Referee Thong Chankethya was a busy man in the middle, as he usually is. He booked nine players, flashed one red card and made some crucial decisions that impacted on the cup tie, as he usually does. One of those came on 19 minutes when he adjudged Phoung Narong's ankle-tap on Heng Sokly as deliberate and Nuth Sinoun stepped up to score from the resultant penalty kick to level the scores. Crown got their noses in front again on 31 minutes when Tieng Tiny's challenge on Rim Bunhieng saw the ball spin out to Sok Pheng and he aimed a left-foot drive into the gaping net. Just two minutes later, BBU netted their second leveller when Chan Veasna's corner to the near post caught the knee of Prum Puthsethy and spun over the head of a bewildered Peng Bunchhay to rest in the Crown net. Chankethya ended the half with two more bookings, taking his first-half tally to half a dozen.

The second half of the game was devoid of action in comparison to the first. One of two major talking points came on 55 minutes when Chan Chaya went down theatrically under a challenge from In Virak in the BBU penalty area. Referee Chankethya rushed to the spot only to brandish a yellow card at Chaya, despite the protestations of his teammates. As extra-time loomed, BBU stopper Hem Simay raced out of his area, clattered into Suong Virak and left the referee with no option but to flash a red card. At least he got that one right. In extra-time, the BBU coach called his players to the touchline as one of the four floodlight pylons failed and a corner of the pitch was in semi-darkness, but order was restored after a discussion amongst the match officials, and play resumed. Kouch Sokumpheak had two chances to put Crown ahead in extra-time but was foiled by substitute keeper Sos Proshim for the first, and then powered a shot an inch past the upright two minutes from the end.

With 120 minutes failing to produce a decisive winning goal, the tie went down to penalty kicks. Here's how the drama unfolded. Tieng Tiny stepped up and arrowed his spot-kick into the bottom left-hand corner (1-0). Peng Bunchhay then saved Chan Veasna's penalty at the foot of the post but referee Chankethya made another of his game changing decisions and ordered the kick to be retaken. Veasna scored (1-1). Kouch Sokumpheak kept his cool and guided his kick into the same corner as Tiny (2-1). BBU sub Ung Marady went for power and whacked his shot in off the underside of the bar (2-2). Crown's San Narith maintained his composure and also found the corner of the net (3-2). BBU drew level again when Nhim Sovannara rifled his drive into the roof of the net (3-3). Another substitute, Suong Virak calmly stroked his spot-kick into the right-hand corner (4-3). Former Crown striker Heng Sokly then watched in despair as Bunchhay dived full length to thwart his kick (4-3). Sun Sopanha had the chance to win it for Crown but his drilled shot went straight at Proshim (4-3). Oum Chandara drew the scores level again with a well-placed drive into the corner (4-4) and the penalty drama went into sudden death. Chan Chaya needed to score to keep Crown's hopes alive but he too aimed his kick down the middle and Proshim saved easily against his former teammate (4-4). It was left to BBU skipper Chhun Sothearath to send Bunchhay the wrong way and net the winning spot-kick for his team (4-5), sparking jubilant celebrations amongst the BBU players and coaching staff that were only cut short when the stadium floodlights were switched off.

Crown line-up: Bunchhay, Dara, Narith, Sothearith (Vanthan 100), Tiny, Narong, Sopanha, Chaya, Ratana (Rathanak 77), Pheng (Virak 57), Sokumpheak. Subs not used: Visokra, Sovan, Sophat, Bunna.
Goals: Narong (12), Pheng (31). Penalties scored: Tiny, Sokumpheak, Narith, Virak.

I caught up with Crown head coach Bojan Hodak after the game and he had this to say. "I thought we started the game well. BBU can play good football but we didn't allow them to play at all. We scored both of our goals from set pieces which we have been practicing, but a lack of concentration allowed BBU back into the game on two occasions. We scored and then mentally we relaxed, and this is something we will learn from. We restricted them to two opportunities, one was the penalty from a counter-attack and the other from a corner. We were nervous in the final third and our final pass was missing from much of the game.
The 2nd half was an ugly affair, with both teams failing to find any rhythm in the final third of the pitch. We had more possession and then in extra-time, we dominated with the extra man, we had the ball all the time but a lack of movement and a poor final pass meant the game went to penalties. And with penalties, it can go either way; its down to mental strength and character. We certainly didn't perform to our best but overall we were the better team, we dominated the game, so its disappointing to go out of the cup. I don't see that it's so critical, we've made lots of changes for the new season, we still lack a little strength in depth which we will address and half of our team were affected by the national team trip to Macau, though we wish BBU well in the next round, they work hard, defend well and held on to win it at the death."
Thul Sothearith leads out the Crown team against BBU
The Crown bench moments before kick-off
Referee Thong Chankethya checking his palm as the captains face up
The BBU starting line-up with penalty hero Chhun Sothearath in the middle of the front row
Crown coach Bojan Hodak watches San Narith (yellow) and Sok Pheng warm-up
Chan Dara (yellow) and Sok Pheng in pre-match action
The Crown players acknowledge the audience before they warm-up

Naga and Army triumph

Continuing the theme of goalscorers minus their shirt, this is Keo Vannak, who netted twice for the Army against Kirivong today
The second day of quarter-finals in the Hun Sen Cup went pretty much as expected, with Naga Corp and the Army going through to set up a Naga versus Preah Khan Reach and BBU v Army semi-finals next week. For Naga, they squeezed past a depleted National Police Commissary side who finished the game with nine men and still managed to give Naga a run for their money. There was so much going on I was running out of ink in my biro. Kop Isa gave Naga the lead just after the half-hour mark with Sophal Udom levelling in the 2nd half. The game went to extra time and Teab Vathanak ducked low to head Naga in front, with sub Chhim Sambo rounding the keeper to score in time added on, only for Ieng Tine to rattle one in to leave the final score at 3-2 in Naga's favour. By that time, the Police had Touch Pancharong and Sophal Udom sent off for kicking and standing nose to nose with the linesman, respectively. Naga deserved their win and it was good to see Sun Sovanrithy back in action as he pepped up the Naga offensive when he joined the action in the 2nd half.
In the 2nd game of the day, the Army (which is preferable to the rather long-winded Ministry of National Defense) were too strong for Kirivong, who really missed their top scorer In Vichheka, out through suspension. Keo Vannak scored two identical headers, both from Pheak Rady crosses, Plong Chanthou and Chhin Chhoeurn netting the other goals as Army strolled through a pretty dull encounter to win 4-1. Kirivong's Chhaing Sophal weaved his way through to level the scores in the 1st half though I'm sure he played last season under his Vietnamese name of Tran Cong Danh. Not sure how that works as the Hun Sen Cup is for Cambodian players only. Though we had fun and games yesterday when BBU wanted to play Srey Vesana, even though he is on the books of a Thai team this season. Presumably he was on holiday in Phnom Penh and fancied a game. If Cambodia is expected to be taken seriously amongst the football fraternity, they really need to sort themselves out and do things by the book, the international one that is, not their own in-house version. More from both games in a future post.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Crown go down

Chhun Sothearath, minus his shirt, moments after scoring the winning penalty for BBU against Phnom Penh Crown
Would you Adam and Eve it? Their first big test of the new season and Phnom Penh Crown were found wanting when they came a cropper this afternoon at the hands of a cock-a-hoop Build Bright United in the Hun Sen Cup quarter-final. It went down to penalty-kicks after the two teams drew 2-2 after extra time but it was the students who kept their nerve as the pressure mounted and they edged it 5-4 to go through to the semis. Not enough hours in the day to write full match reports from yesterday's games, though I will post them later tonight; in the meantime, Preah Khan Reach put Prek Pra to the sword with a 5-1 win, with that man Khuon Laboravy netting a hat-trick to take his Hun Sen Cup tally to 19 goals. Tum Saray and Phanny Y Ratha also scored for PKR after Mat Hasan had given Prek Pra an early lead. Pretty one-sided though Prek Pra were made to pay dearly for pushing up too far and leaving themselves exposed at the back. In the 2nd match, Crown dominated possession but couldn't create enough chances, or take the ones they did create, to stamp their authority over BBU. The students defended well, rebuffed Crown's advances, held on for dear life when they went down to 10-men in regular time injury-time with the dismissal of keeper Hem Simay and won the lottery that is penalty kicks. Crown will be kicking themselves that they didn't force home their advantage and the first major shock of the cup competition is that Crown won't make the final for the 4th successive year. Crown twice went ahead through Phoung Narong and Sok Pheng but were reined in by goals from Nuth Sinoun (penalty) and Prum Puthsethy. When it came down to the penalties, Sun Sopanha and Chan Chaya had their spot-kicks saved by former Crown stopper Sos Proshim and BBU were the ones jumping around for joy when Chhun Sothearath whacked home his winning penalty and the lights at the Olympic Stadium were turned off. A lot more from both games to follow.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Awaiting cup news

Winning the domestic Metfone C-League Championship last season has qualified Phnom Penh Crown for the AFC President's Cup competition this season, the 3rd occasion that Crown will represent Cambodia. There was newspaper talk of Cambodia hosting some of the competition's games this time around and that's still an iron in the fire as far as I know, pending the official draw for the group stages that will be held on 14 March in Kuala Lumpur. Teams from 12 member associations – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - will be taking part in three groups at the initial stage. The top two teams in each group qualify for the six team finals, which were hosted by Myanmar last season. The previous occasions that Crown have competed in the AFC President's Cup began in 2005, losing in the opening road of games despite a 2-1 success over Pakistan champions WAPDA. And in 2009 Crown earned themselves many plaudits despite two defeats and a win over Bhutan’s Yeedzin, which was not enough to secure passage to the second round of the Cup.

Halfway house

It's encouraging for Cambodian football that the senior national team have qualified for next month's AFC Challenge Cup group matches. However, the four group competition of sixteen teams in total is actually the final qualifying round of the Challenge Cup before the tournament proper will be held with eight teams, sometime in 2012. Cambodia have been drawn in Group C and will play against the Maldives (20 Mar), Tajikistan (23 Mar) and Kyrgyzstan (25 Mar), with all the games taking place in Male, in the Maldives. Three months later, at the end of June, there will be two World Cup 2014 qualification knock-out matches to be played as well, though details aren't yet firmed-up and to who and where. I'm presuming that the Football Federation in Cambodia will arrange for a break in the Metfone C-League season to accommodate these World Cup matches.
In the meantime, let's take a quick look at the future of football in Cambodia, which lies in the youth. The next level down from the senior team are the Under-23s, who enter the SEA Games every two years and who will be looking to fare better in Indonesia this December, than they did in Laos in 2009. So it's perhaps a mite disappointing that Cambodia haven't entered an Under-23 team in the AFF U-23 Championship that will be held in Indonesia in July, a tournament which will include the likes of the host country, Singapore, Philippines, Myanmar and Timor Leste. Admittedly, it would've meant taking eligible players away from the C-League competition but there is always a price to pay for giving players the right level of exposure at international level. That also applies at Under-19 level too. Myanmar will host the AFF U-19 Championship in September this year and Cambodia will be noticeable by their absence, as they were in the AFC U-19 Championships last year. The usual suspects will be there including Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. On a positive note, the country's Under-16s will be donning the red jerseys in Laos for the AFF U-16 Championships between 7-17 July in a group alongside Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore and Philippines. No easy ride for our youngsters.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Looking ahead to the weekend

The quarter-finals of the Hun Sen Cup are fast approaching. With two games on Saturday and another two on Sunday, we'll soon know the semi-finalists with Phnom Penh Crown, Preah Khan, Naga and Kirivong my favourites to progress. In the 1st quarter-final, Preah Khan take on Prek Pra Keila at the Olympic Stadium at 2pm on Saturday, with Crown facing Build Bright United at 4.30pm. The next day, Naga and the Police Commissary do battle at 2pm, followed by Kirivong Sok Sen Chey's clash with the Army. The semi's will be held on 5 March and the final on Saturday 12 March, just in time for the national team to get together ahead of their three AFC Challenge Cup group games in the Maldives, that begin on 20 March.
If last season's form is anything to go by, then the tie of the quarter-finals is Crown against BBU. Both teams have made improvements to their squad in the off season with Kouch Sokumpheak spearheading the Crown attack, a winner of the Hun Sen Cup whilst with Khemara as well as collecting two Golden Boot awards as the competition's top scorer. He certainly has the pedigree to handle the big occasion, as do his experienced teammates. With Khim Borey having moved onto play in the Thai Premier League without kicking a ball in anger for Crown, Sokumpheak's likely partner is his national team colleague Sok Pheng. One face missing from the squad through injury will be the experienced campaigner Chea Virath, though its likely that Army recruit Suong Virak will get the all-clear to make his first appearance in a Crown jersey.
Crown coach Bojan Hodak is quietly confident. "We'll approach this like every other match, we take this competition very seriously and we will go out to win. BBU are one of the best teams in the cup, they finished 2nd in the league last season, so they must have good players but I'm confident that if we play up to our level, that we can win." Crown recently met BBU in a pre-season friendly with Hodak brushing aside the result; "We beat them 3-1 in a friendly but that doesn't count. I know they have good players in Bunheang, Sothearath, Puthsethy and Sinoun. However, I have confidence in my players and if we perform to our standard, we can beat anyone. We can't take anything for granted though as the cup is a tough competition because you don't have a right to an off-day or to be unlucky, or else you can get knocked out."
BBU, who led the Metfone C-League for large chunks of last season before falling to Preah Khan in the play-off semi-final, eventually claimed 3rd spot with a penalty-kick victory over Naga Corp. In the Summer they added striker Heng Sokly to their ranks, once the striker left Crown at the end of last season after netting six times. Their youthful exuberance served them well last season and they will be looking to strike an early blow against the cup favourites on Saturday.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Keeping in shape

Crown line-up: [back row, LtoR] Sothearith, Dara, Obadin, Visokra, Njoku, Vanthan [front row] Pheng, Narong, Virak, Sophat, Chaya
To keep in shape for their pending Hun Sen Cup quarter-final against Build Bright next weekend, Phnom Penh Crown yesterday faced the African All Stars XI, at their Tuol Kork training ground. Crown held back their national team players, fresh back from their AFC Challenge Cup qualification game in Macau, to give their squad players more match experience against a strong and tactically aware African line-up. Chan Chaya netted on 25 minutes to put Crown ahead, though they were pegged back on half-time by a debatable penalty award, scored by Paris. On 70 minutes an own goal put Crown ahead again before a mix-up in defence five minutes later, allowed Adobayo to score to end the game at 2-2. Coach Bojan Hodak was satisfied. "It was a good game, we showed good physical fitness and it was a good learning game for our younger boys. I put the national players on for the last thirty minutes and we really dominated." Crown gave more game-time to the Stung Treng duo of Hok Sochivorn and skipper Kim Sophanal as well as bringing on young striker Hong Pheng from Siem Reap-based Baksey Chamkrong, who did well in the Hun Sen Cup group matches last month.
Crown starting line-up: Visokra (Bunchhay 45), Dara (Sovan 70), Vanthan (Narith 65), Sothearith (Sochivorn 45), Obadin (Tiny 65); Narong (Sophanal 43), Sophat (Sopanha 65), Virak (Ratana 45), Chaya (Rathanak 75); Njoku (Sokumpheak 65), S Pheng (H Pheng 70).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Challenges ahead

Cambodia are through to the group stages of the AFC Challenge Cup. But only just. Macau gave them a real scare this week, pulling the tie back to 4-4 at full-time in the second leg and it was left to veteran marksman Sam El Nasa to carry Cambodia through with an extra-time goal. They lost the 2nd leg battle but won the war. I've heard some of the excuses for their poor showing - over-trained, poor pitch, cold temperatures - but Cambodia will have to step up to the plate if they are to put on a good showing in the group games. They'll join three other teams in Group C, which will be hosted by the Maldives in Male. The opposition will be in the form of hosts Maldives, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the match dates will be 21, 23 and 25 March. Tajikistan will be a new face for Cambodia as they've played against the other two countries in the past. The other 3 qualifying groups of the AFC Challenge Cup 2012 have now been confirmed by Asian Football Confederation. Group A will be hosted by Myanmar in Yangon. The teams in this group are: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Palestine, and the winners of the pre-qualification match between Mongolia and the Philippines on 15 March (the Philippines won the first leg 2-0). The match days are 21, 23 and 25 March. Group B will be played in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the participating teams are 2008 champions India, Pakistan, Chinese Taipei and Turkmenistan. The match days are 21, 23 and 25 March. Group D will be played in Kathmandu, Nepal. The teams are: Nepal, 2010 champions DPR Korea, Sri Lanka, and the winners of the pre-qualification match between Bhutan and Afghanistan (23 and 25 March). The match days will be 7, 9 and 11 April.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From the Bench with Bojan

Bojan Hodak
The Phnom Penh Crown Yearbook for 2011 includes a page from head coach Bojan Hodak. I've posted it here so you can keep abreast of what Crown's new coach has to say.

From the Bench with Bojan Hodak

I came to Phnom Penh Crown as I could see that the club’s owner and management are young and ambitious. When you have ambition at the top, it makes the job of a coach that little bit easier, though of course it’s only hard work that will bring success. I was interested in a job in Europe but when I came here, I was impressed with what I saw and heard and happy to join the club. As a bonus, they will allow me to continue my UEFA Pro Licence by returning to Croatia, and this I really appreciate. Having lived in Singapore and Malaysia as a player and coach, football and living styles are very similar across Southeast Asia and this experience helps a lot in adjusting. Coaches, and players, without that experience often fail because they don’t adjust. That’s not a problem for me.

Phnom Penh Crown are building a reputation as the best club side in Cambodia, so our target in every match and every competition must be to win. This winning mentality is what I must build into my player’s minds as with every win they become better players mentally and with every trophy they collect, they will earn more respect. I want us to win every match we play in, but I also want us to play a style of football that is nice to watch and is attractive to the supporters. When we played in Thailand recently, one of their officials told me that it was the first time he’d seen a Cambodian team play good football. That made me and the team feel good. We want more of those feelings. I will prepare the team technically, tactically, mentally and physically, I will ask them to play a style that sees us passing and keeping possession, because it’s a simple game really, if you have the ball your opponent cannot score. We need the whole team to stay compact, keep their shape for 90 minutes and remain disciplined. But I don’t want automatons, I want them to show their personal style, their own flair and skills within that team pattern.

There is plenty of room for improvement with our squad of players. To be honest, our boys are not developed technically, tactically and physically compared to other Asian countries. But they have a great attitude, they are willing to work hard at their game to improve and this will make our task easier. Two areas that we need to improve substantially, is in our creativity and finishing. I will work individually with the players as one-to-one coaching makes a big difference, and we will work extra hard on our finishing and giving the players ideas on how to express their creativeness on the pitch.

There is a lot of ground to be made up. From what I can see, football development in Cambodia doesn’t exist by comparison with other advanced countries. The players in the Cambodian League have missed the education they’d normally receive at youth level, learning how to be professional, nutrition, basic techniques, physical preparation and so on. Also the clubs and management need to display more professionalism and in this the country’s football federation needs to lead by example. Asia is behind Europe and South America but countries like Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and a few Arab states have invested a lot into youth development and today this is paying dividends, they have individuals that are good enough to play in Europe and soon, their teams will be matching the European countries. This is the lead that countries within Southeast Asia need to follow.

I think it’s a great move forwards that Phnom Penh Crown are beginning their own youth program because this will produce players for the senior squad in the future. Across the world, clubs recognise that the best way to develop players within your own club is to have a successful youth program. But this means that the boys need to play regular matches and tournaments. This is where the football federations take the lead, with government support where possible. To produce a player for the senior team you need 8-10 years, but even with proper coaching you will see a difference in maybe three years. That makes coaching education programs another vital component and for me, I would always encourage former players to go into coaching, as I did, as their playing experience will be invaluable. A positive to take from the current situation is that a fully integrated youth program in Cambodia doesn’t exist so we can plan properly from the beginning, though they will need to find sponsors and the right people to do it. Take Japan as a perfect example. In the 1990s they invested a lot of money and brought in experts from all over the globe to raise their standards and now they are a world power in football. I know Cambodia cannot compete financially yet but there is good practise to learn from and implement here.

As we improve, with every good result we will gain more respect and more supporters, many of whom will be young boys that will harbour a dream to play for a successful club like ours. I want as many young boys as possible to want to play for this club. I want us to be successful both inside and outside Cambodia and our team will be striving for that every time they pull on the jersey of Phnom Penh Crown. You have my word.

Bojan's Bio

Croatian-born head coach Bojan Hodak turned to coaching after a successful playing career, as a no-nonsense central defender in his homeland, playing for six years in the Croatian 1st and 2nd Divisions with NK Trnje, NK Vrapce, NK Hrvatski Dragovaljac and NK Ponikve. He headed to Asia in 1997, playing for a further five years in the top divisions in Singapore and Hong Kong at Balestier Central, Jurong FC and Hong Kong Rangers. He earned his UEFA A License badge in 2004 and came to prominence when he partnered ESPN's Shebby Singh on the Malaysian reality television show, My Team, which saw them coach a squad of amateur players to take on the Malaysian national team. Their success earned them entry, as UPB-My Team, into the Malaysian Premier League, they gained promotion in their first season and then spent two more years in the Super League before financial problems saw them drop out. He’s worked for the Asian Football Confederation as an analyst for the last three years, turning to television and radio punditry for the Malaysian media before accepting the challenge at Phnom Penh Crown in November 2010.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Skin of their teeth

Sam El Nasa to Cambodia's rescue
Cambodia qualified for the group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup this evening, by the skin of their teeth. It doesn't come any closer than the 5-4 aggregate win they achieved when Sam El Nasa came off the bench after an hour and netted the deciding goal 17 minutes into extra time. South Korean coach Lee Tae-Hoon will have had kittens after watching Khim Borey head his team into the lead in time added on in the first half of normal time, only to see his side concede 3 second-half goals that wiped out their first leg advantage. From such a strong position, to concede like that beggars belief. Nevertheless, extra time arrived with the scores pegged at 4-4 and it was the veteran striker Sam El Nasa that rescued Cambodia's Challenge Cup hopes with the match-winning goal.
Lee Tae-Hoon caused a ripple of surprise when he chose Touch Pancharong and Chan Rithy ahead of the experienced heads of San Narith and Sam El Nasa to start the 2nd leg in Macau, in front of a paltry 100 spectators and a very cool evening. Khim Borey had been restored to the starting line-up in favour of Prak Mony Udom and rewarded his coach with the opening goal from close range in time added on after 47 minutes. As they did in Phnom Penh, Macau refused to lie down and came back strongly after the break. Vernon Wong netted just after the hour, before two goals in as many minutes threw the tie wide open again. Both goals were scored by substitutes, Ka Hang Leong on 73 minutes and Vinicio Alves two minutes later after an awful backpass. The teams were all square and neither side could break the deadlock before the Sri Lankan referee, Perera, who flashed 7 yellow cards in the game, blew for full-time. With all substitutions already made, it was left to the men on the pitch and it was the most experienced of campaigners, El Nasa, that came up trumps for Cambodia with his 107th minute headed winner from San Narith's cross. Coach Lee will have breathed the biggest sigh of relief possible, squeezing through on aggregate despite losing to Macau for the first time, 3-2.
Cambodia line-up: Mic, Raksmey (Narith 38), Pancharong, Tiny, Piseth, Sopanha (Sokngorn 72), Sothearath, C Rithy, Borey (El Nasa 61), Sokumpheak, Laboravy. Subs not used: Bunchhay, T Udom, Soun Veasna, PM Udom, Pheng, Soksana. Bookings: Tiny, Borey, Sokngorn, Narith.

In Conversation with...

Kouch Sokumpheak
The Phnom Penh Crown Yearbook for 2011 includes an interview with two of the team's most highly-rated players, Kouch Sokumpheak and Tieng Tiny. Here's the interview.

In Conversation with.... Kouch Sokumpheak and Tieng Tiny

Kouch Sokumpheak is widely touted as Cambodia’s most talented footballer of his generation, whilst Tieng Tiny is rated as the best homegrown defender in the country, and both players play for Phnom Penh Crown. We caught up with the duo during a break from training with the national team to find out a little more about them.

For the record, Sokumpheak, now 23 years old, is one of five siblings and was born in Porbakor village in the heart of Kompong Thom town. He’s played football for as long as he can remember, coming to prominence for the Kompong Thom provincial team whilst still at Hun Sen Balaing High School. Spotted by Khemara Keila manager/coach Lah Salakhan during a match played in Kratie, he made the journey down to Phnom Penh and earned a place in the Khemara line-up immediately. His Crown and international teammate Tieng Tiny is a year older and hails from Boeung Daun Pa village in Siem Reap. One of six children, he was snapped up by his provincial team when he was just fifteen and attending 10 Makara High School. He too was a target of Lah Salakhan’s scouting network and was invited to join Khemara.

2006 was a memorable milestone year for both players. They were part of the Khemara side that captured the Championship Trophy, beating Phnom Penh United 5-4 in the play-off final. They also earned a call-up into Cambodia’s AFC Challenge Cup national team squad and made their first appearances against Bangladesh in Dhaka in April of that year. The following year, the two players parted company, with Sokumpheak remaining at Khemara, as he would until he signed on for Crown a few months ago. Meanwhile, Tiny joined up with Phnom Penh Empire for a year and then a less than successful season with Naga Corp before moving to Phnom Penh Crown in 2009. Both players remained integral members of the Cambodian national team, as they are today.

Sokumpheak, with a league title and a Hun Sen Cup Final success in his locker, was the epitome of loyalty as he remained with Khemara, despite the club’s waning fortunes. “I have great respect and gratitude towards Lah Salakhan, as well as enjoying the camaraderie we had at Khemara,” he said. It kept him there until he was finally persuaded to leave in November 2010, joining Crown ahead of the current new season. Tiny was already with Crown, as they captured the Metfone C-League Championship and just failed to land the Hun Sen Cup last term.

Both players will have important roles for Crown this season. Tiny’s main task will be to marshall the defence, whilst Sokumpheak will be expected to get amongst the goals, as he did for Khemara in the last two editions of the Hun Sen Cup, claiming the Golden Boot award twice in succession, with 21 and 18 goals respectively. The striker was full of praise for his new coach at Crown, Bojan Hodak. “Bojan is very good, he understands the game and he encourages us all of the time.” Tiny agreed. “I like his knowledge and methods of defence, and he’s teaching me new tricks as a defender. We are also physically stronger than before,” he explained. Sokumpheak added; “Crown are much more professional than other clubs. Their coaching methods, food, training equipment, facilities and higher wages, all make a real difference to the players.”

We’ve already heard that Lah Salakhan assumed the role of mentor for Sokumpheak whilst he was at Khemara, though the striker also counts Scott O’Donell as one of his best influences, during his spell in charge of the national team. “Scott gave us great advice, trained us hard and helped us adopt a much more professional attitude.” Tiny echoed his colleague’s views and found that O’Donell, a central defender himself, helped his game by sharing his own experiences. Both players have also been impressed with the current Cambodian coach, South Korean, Lee Tae-Hoon.

It was clear the two players regard each other as good friends as well as teammates. They replied in unison to tell me that playing abroad was not on their list of priorities, as being away from family and friends wasn’t something they were keen on, whilst stepping into a coaching role, once their playing days are over, is definitely something they will consider. When asked about representing Cambodia in international football, Tiny remarked; “I’m proud to play for my country, it makes me happy, I get to visit many other countries, I get exposure to new things, my experience improves and I become a better player.” Sokumpheak concurred; “I am very proud to wear my country’s jersey and to show our flag abroad. It makes me very happy. Football is a good job and a good career and playing for Cambodia is something I enjoy immensely.”

The future of Cambodian football was the final topic of discussion. Tiny remarked; “I think former players should train the next generation as they know the game and can pass on their knowledge and experiences. Foreign coaches help a lot too, with good explanations, good ideas on training and food, methods of playing and treatment of injuries.” For Sokumpheak, he believes the football federation can play a more significant role in youth development. “I’m a believer that the federation should support the accommodation, study, food and training of the younger players, so they can focus clearly on their football and not be distracted. I also feel that clubs should assist players to find jobs after their football careers are finished, so they can concentrate 100% on football whilst they are playing.” Both Sokumpheak and Tiny are a long way from the end of their careers as they embark on their first season playing alongside each other at Phnom Penh Crown. It promises to be an exciting year ahead for both.

Tieng Tiny

Monday, February 14, 2011

20 strong for Macau trip

Cambodia's national team at the airport before their trip to Macau (pic FFC)
The Cambodian national football team flew to Macau via Hong Kong today, in preparation for their AFC Challenge Cup qualifying second leg match on Wednesday. Leading 3-1 from the first leg in Phnom Penh last week, Cambodia are red hot favourites to progress through to the group stage of the cup, which will be played at the end of next month. They showed they have too much in their locker for their opponents, from the special administrative area of China, even though Macau came back strongly in the latter stages of last Wednesday's match. Coach Lee Tae-Hoon has selected a playing squad of 20 to take on Macau, with Srey Veasna (of Loei City in Thailand) the only player who featured in last week's game, not making the trip. The squad is: Mic, Bunchhay, Raksmey, Narith, Tiny, Piseth, Pancharong, T Udom; Sothearath, Sopanha, PM Udom, Soksana, Soun Veasna, Sokngorn, C Rithy; El Nasa, Sokumpheak, Borey, Pheng, Laboravy.

Success for Cambodia will pitch them into Group C of the AFC Challenge Cup alongwith three other teams. Matches will be played between 21-30 March, though the host country has yet to be announced. A look at the FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings shows that the top team in the group will be the Republic of Tajikistan, rated at 141 in the world. Half of their national team comes from the Tajik League champions Istiqlol Dushanbe, who strolled to the league title in December, completing their domestic season with 26 wins, six draws and no defeats. The same theme applied to the Indian Ocean-based Maldives champions VB Sports, who were undefeated in 21 games to win the Dhiraagu Dhivehi League crown and who will populate the Maldives national team, who are ranked at 160 in the FIFA table. They lie six places above Cambodia, who are at 166. The weakest of the Group C countries on paper will be Kyrgyzstan, at 175, for whom Neftchi Kochkorata are the league champions. Macau stand at 193 in the rankings.
Cambodia line-up before the 1st leg last week against Macau: (Back row LtoR): Piseth, Raksmey, El Nasa, Laboravy, Sopanha, Mic (Front row) PM Udom, Tiny, Sothearath, Narith, Sokumpheak

Friday, February 11, 2011

On yer bike

Phnom Penh Crown yesterday played an afternoon practice match against one of the better local teams, Flying Bikes FC, at their Tuol Kork training ground, which has probably the best playing surface in the country. Crown won 3-0 with Kingsley Njoku netting just after the half-hour and then scoring a 2nd on 69 minutes. 2nd half substitute Hok Sochivorn also scored on 79 minutes to complete the result. Sochivorn and the two trialists from Stung Treng, Kim Sophanal and Pheng Dara, played for a 2nd time after last week's substitute appearances against Prek Pra. Crown coach Bojan Hodak said that the opposition were one of the best teams they'd played recently, keeping hold of the ball well but not causing the Crown defence any real problems. He was pleased with the performance of his two Nigerian imports from Singapore, Kingsley Njoku and Odion Obadin, who despite not being eligible to play in the Hun Sen Cup, are getting some friendly matches under their belts in preparation for the start of the domestic Metfone C-League competition in early April. Crown starting line-up, shorn of their national team players, was: Visokra, C Dara, P Dara, Sothearith, Obadin; Narong, Sophanal, Virak, Rathanak; Chaya, Njoku. 2nd half substitutes were: Bunna, Vanthan, Sovan, Sophat, Virath, Ratana.
Recent import Kingsley Njoku is impressing when he gets the chance. Pic Nick Sells.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Crown Yearbook 2011

The front cover of Phnom Penh Crown's 2011 Yearbook
In another step towards raising the standards of professionalism in Cambodian football, Phnom Penh Crown have just published their first full-colour Yearbook for 2011. Sixteen A4 pages with commentary in English from the club's president Rithy Samnang, head coach Bojan Hodak, a potted club history, a joint interview with two of the club's star players, Kouch Sokumpheak and Tieng Tiny, as well as a look back at 2010 and an introduction to their brand new Elite Football Academy. There are pages of photos of the senior team and Academy players and a center-spread team photo. The Yearbook will be available from the club's Sothearos Boulevard office and will also find its way overseas as part of the club's promotion and marketing campaign.
A page with the senior side's face photos inside the Yearbook
An interview with two of the club's best players, Kouch Sokumpheak and Tieng Tiny

Proud moments

It's that proud moment when the players get to sing the national anthem whilst looking towards the national flag
Another batch of photos from yesterday's 3-1 international victory for Cambodia over the Chinese special administrative district of Macau, the former Portuguese colony that was handed over to China in 1999 but are still allowed to play as a separate international team from their Chinese rulers. Cambodia will play in Macau next Wednesday in the away leg of the AFC Challenge Cup, looking to maintain their path towards the group stages which take place later next month.
Skipper Ouk Mic leading out the Cambodian players in red for yesterday's match
The Cambodian bench standing for the national anthem with coaches, players and officials
The Macau team that were very pleased they scored a goal and conceded only 3 yesterday
The referee was from Myanmar but is hidden behind the two captains
'All for one and one for all' in the pre-match team huddle
An unhappy national coach Lee Tae-Hoon reading his team the half-time riot act. They decided to remain pitchside for their half-time deliberations.
The match is underway with the open areas of the ground devoid of spectators though the main stand enjoyed a healthy audience. Match admission was $1.

Before the action starts

Kouch Sokumpheak, looking tough and ready for action
I love the excitement of an international football match, the nerves and adrenaline pumping through everyone's veins, the way the players sing the national anthem, albeit very quietly, the pre-match build-up, the match commissioner asking the cameraman to move at least one step backwards, a sigh of relief that the team-sheet was typed up in English, and the after-match press conference when the questions were so inane that I know the previous national coach would've shot the reporters down in flames. Here are some pre-match photos with a distinct Phnom Penh Crown flavour from the Cambodia versus Macau AFC Challenge Cup qualifier played yesterday at the National Olympic Stadium to give you a taster. More to follow.
PPC's Tieng Tiny, a veteran of international football
Sun Sopanha, who assisted with two of Cambodia' goals yesterday
San Narith, slotted in at left-back instead of his usual midfield holding role
PPC's Sok Pheng was one of the substitutes for Cambodia yesterday
Crown's number 1 Peng Bunchhay is number 2 behind Ouk Mic for the national team
PPC teammates Tieng Tiny and San Narith in their pre-match warm-up strip
These are the newly-installed PPC Academy boys attending their first international match in their club colours

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cambodia do just enough

The Cambodia starting XI: (Back row LtoR): Piseth, Raksmey, El Nasa, Laboravy, Sopanha, Mic (Front row) PM Udom, Tiny, Sothearath, Narith, Sokumpheak
A win is a win and Cambodia go into next week's away leg in China with a 3-1 advantage after overpowering the minnows from Macau in the 2nd half of this afternoon's AFC Challenge Cup qualifying encounter. In front of an expectant home crowd, the Cambodians started nervously and couldn't get the all-important first goal to settle their butterflies. Macau sat back and allowed Cambodia to play, and found the home side bereft of ideas on how to break down their defensive game plan. Both of the main strikers missed great opportunities in the first half. Kouch Sokumpheak blazed over the bar when well-placed on 18 minutes and then didn't get the connection he wanted when he poked the ball past the Macau keeper after 38 minutes. Sam El Nasa, more guile than speed these days, was guilty of wasting a guilt-edged chance on two minutes when he bent down low and headed over the bar from close in, and then sent a free header wide of the upright when it looked easier to score, with a couple of minutes to the break. The chubby Macau stopper Chon Kit Leong pulled off a great save to deny Khuon Laboravy in the 13th minute, when the winger got a great connecting header to Sokumpheak's fizzed cross, only to see the keeper deny him with a superb one-handed save. More huffing and puffing from Cambodia, who found it hard to get the ball down on a bobbly pitch, but they had keeper-captain Ouk Mic to thank on 27 minutes when Chi Che found room at a corner to get in a shot, which Mic did well to smother. All square at the interval.

Within 14 minutes of the 2nd half, the complexion of the game had changed dramatically, with Cambodia ahead 3-nil and Macau finally succumbing to the relentless Cambodian pressure. It began within three minutes of the restart when Sam El Nasa jumped with defender Pak Lao and appeared to get the final touch to Sun Sopanha's dangerous corner for the 1st goal. The relief so quickly after the break was there for all to see. Five minutes later, El Nasa had netted a 2nd goal and Cambodia were cruising. Chhun Sothearath and Kouch Sokumpheak combined to send the latter racing to the bye-line and his perfect cross onto the head of El Nasa was easy pickings for the veteran. A minute before the hour mark, Khuon Laboravy made up for a poor missed chance moments before, by racing onto a defence-splitting Sun Sopanha pass and firing past the keeper from 12 yards out. Cambodia had the cushion they'd been seeking all game and the frustration was effectively over. A rash of substitutes did nothing for the game as a spectacle but Macau posted notice when sub Ka Hang Leong weaved his way past three ineffectual tackles and stung Mic's fingers, before the same player got a steal on his marker to a Wai Tong Ho free-kick and headed the ball firmly past Ouk Mic and inside the post, eleven minutes from time. It was a poor goal to concede and one which the South Korean coach won't be happy with. In time added on, and with fresh legs in the line up, Sokngorn gave Sokumpheak room to drill the ball against the cross-bar from 15 yards out, which brought the game to a close and a 3-1 victory for Cambodia to take to the second leg, and favourites to progress to the group stage of the Challenge Cup competition. It was an easy win for the home country, who'll be cheesed that they didn't inflict a heavier defeat on the visitors, especially as Macau didn't really kick-off their interest in the game until they were 3-nil down and their only bright spark was Ka Hang Leong's direct play in the final twenty minute.
Cambodia's line-up: Mic, Raksmey, Narith, Tiny, Piseth, Sothearath, Sopanha, Laboravy (C Rithy 69), PM Udom (Sokngorn 61), El Nasa (Srey Veasna 77), Sokumpheak. Subs not used: Bunchhay, Pancharong, T Udom, Pheng. Bookings: Raksmey (52, trip).
Two headed goals from veteran striker Sam El Nasa earned Cambodia their 3-1 success