You may have noticed. Iran played Cambodia on Thursday and it got ugly real fast, real bad. A thrashing in Tehran was arguably inevitable but it was made „worse“ by the increased coverage due to the gates of Azadi Stadium being, for once, opened to female spectators (well, semi-opened, it should be noted). That left me at a curious crossroads — on the one hand, the game made for a feel-good story; on the other hand, Cambodia’s struggles made for too cheap a punchline for many.
So here it goes — my awkwardly timed attempt to write Cambodia a feel-good story of their own (actual) making. You are all welcome.
The cruel irony is not lost on me; it does feel peculiar to be writing a defence of a team that clearly cannot defend to save their lives. It was all there: players sort of trying to block shots but not really because they are too afraid to face the ball; a clumsy close-range deflection into own net; defender getting nutmegged inside his own penalty box; goalkeeper fumbling at a simple shot; a textbook back pass claimed by the same keeper to set up an irresistible indirect free kick; a schoolboy penalty foul by the goalkeeper… oh hang on, the last one was actually Beiranvand on the other side. Never mind.
In a way, the defensive performance resembled that of Norwich against Liverpool on the opening matchday of this Premier League season. It was “naive” in all senses of the word, not least for Cambodia’s reluctance to stop playing out of the back even at 0-14.
But that’s exactly it.
Norwich have their own way of playing and won’t drop it just because they face a vastly superior opponent, which is precisely why they “stunned” Manchester City a few weeks later. Cambodia have their own way of playing — they might be “soft” and will always come up short at set pieces (something Iran exploited too), but they know how to combine and can cause serious troubles to anyone with their agility and relentless pressing — and they won’t drop it against Iran just like they didn’t drop it against Bahrain a few weeks prior, ending up one unlucky bounce removed from a valuable point.
Cambodia find themselves in a tough group consisting of three 2019 Asian Cup knock-out stages participants and Hong Kong who are notoriously hard to score against. Yet Cambodia did it in their home opener, and ultimately held them to a 1-1 draw. The “score line” as far as average age of starting XI members goes? 24,00 – 29,36 for Hong Kong; a difference of over five years. Only four of the Cambodian starters on the day had featured in at least half (9) of their WC18/AC19 qualifiers; six virtually didn’t play a role.
This is a team building for future, gaining experience while playing their way, absorbing patterns.
At this stage four years ago, many players were caught in a revolving door. Only Malaysia (32) had used more players than Cambodia (29) after five opening games of the last WCQ cycle. This time around, Cambodia boast one of the most rigid (19 players) and youngest squads around, while only one position — up top — has been up for grabs.
The turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Félix Dalmás regularly puts faith in 7-8 players under 23 years and as many as 10 U-25s, be it from the start or off the bench. The influence of Keisuke Honda can’t be denied at this point either — if it’s indirect through his football school he runs in Cambodia, or very much first-hand as he’s so far been ever-present on the bench.
Unlike 2015, Cambodia now have their own poster boy, too. In June, Sieng Chanthea (#17) became his country’s youngest ever scorer at 16, later assisting on another goal in the return game vs Pakistan or hitting a post vs Hong Kong, and was just recently nominated by his FA for the AFC Young Player of the Year. He won’t win it, of course, but the “Cambodian Messi” tag is coming for the nifty left winger if it hasn’t landed yet.
Mostly hailing from the current top2 of the local C-League (Svay Rieng and Visakha supply 6 to 7 starters), Cambodia can’t possibly aspire to become the next Vietnam anytime soon — at least not until their internationals start flooding better Southeast Asian leagues. But they already make for one of the most fun sides of these qualifiers, and not because they allowed Iran to demolish them. For just about every other reason.
Quite naturally for such an inexperienced side, Cambodia still have a lot of things to figure out. They complement each other well, produce many give-and-go’s or one-two’s, and manage to create partial man advantages quite regularly, but they almost exclusively do so on the left side. Against Hong Kong, for instance, they led twenty of their 30 attacks (including counters) down the left. Moreover, while they are able to break out of their half quite effectively, they often just get stuck in wide areas, unable to progress into the final third. Cambodia rarely have/use that central “escape” route and rather resort to awfully rushed deep crosses.
That being said, their interplay is unbearably cute, and I could genuinely spend a whole day just recording all relevant sequences to show you just how cute it is. Keo Soksela, the 22-year-old goalkeeper, seems skillful with his feet and can support the build-up well, while Keo Sokpheng (#14) is the key to unlocking defences worth copying. He excels in tight spaces when on the ball, and every so often offers up for that rare outlet pass up top, potentially giving Cambodia at least some cutting edge off the ball.
I don’t know if it’s Honda’s casual wear or what, but Cambodia just seem to play without nerves. It can backfire, sure, but you only win with courage and these guys have it aplenty.
Cambodia play football for themselves and their fans who loudly cheer on every single intricate passing move they put together. As many as 45,500 spectators watched their home opener vs Hong Kong and only 500 less people turned up for the Bahrain game a couple of days later. Just listening to the crowd, one would think goals are secondary.
When Iraq visit Phnom Penh on Tuesday, the reality surely won’t be any different. And why would it? The fans will come, because the players have seemingly sworn to entertain them.
At all cost.