Monday, December 1, 2008

Sovannara the perfect host

Cambodia head coach - Prak Sovannara
Cambodia's national team coach Prak Sovannara was the perfect host for a couple of hours this morning, as I went in search of the least-fancied outfit amongst the eight countries taking part in the forthcoming Asean Football Federation 2008 Suzuki Cup Championships being held in Indonesia and Thailand starting this coming Friday. Softly-spoken Sovannara took over the national team in July this year after a string of poor performances under the former South Korean coach and the forecast looked bleak when a three week stint of practice matches in South Korea, produced losses in six of eight games to university and domestic teams. Not easily downhearted, Sovannara, who played for the national team for a decade in the 1990s and who has coached domestic side Phnom Penh Empire and the national youth team, also cast aside crushing defeats against two of the teams in their group next week, 7-1 to Myanmar and 7-0 to Indonesia, only to put some fire into the belly of his players for the AFF qualifying tournament held in Phnom Penh in October. With wins over Laos and Brunei, a draw with Timor Leste and a loss to Philippines, his youthful Cambodian team, with an average age of 22, qualified as runners-up for the finals by dint of scoring more goals, alongwith Laos. Success at long last and something for the fans and players alike to rejoice in, exemplified by the whole squad running to throw their shirts into the crowd at the end of the qualifiers.

Today the 22-man squad - with 4 additions to the successful qualifying group of players - had their shirts on their backs as they pushed themselves hard in training, knowing that physical fitness will be one area where they can match their opponents. Sovannara is a realist as we talked about the teams opposing Cambodia in their Group A games in Jakarta, starting with the opening match of the competition against the holders and favourites Singapore on Friday. "We were badly beaten by two of the teams in the group when we played them in Indonesia a few months ago, and Singapore won the cup last time, so we have a lot of ground to make up. But my players have trained hard for this and they want to show they have improved. It's eleven against eleven and on the day anything can happen, especially with luck on our side." Certainly spirits were high in the camp as Sovannara introduced me to the players for an impromptu photo session before they finished off their morning session with a light-hearted practice match with extra training for the losing team. A few blisters and a strapping on left-winger Chan Rithy's right knee were the only injury concerns as the team prepares to fly to Jakarta tomorrow evening. The 22-man squad will be accompanied by a team of ten officials, including head coach Sovannara and four assistant coaches, a physio and Cambodia football federation officers.

Aside from a security guard and my motodop, I was the only visitor to the National Football Centre, some 17kms west of Phnom Penh, out along Route 4 this morning. The Centre was unveiled in January 2003, built with a $400,000 grant from FIFA under their Goal Program to developing countries. Hidden a few kilometres from the main highway, it was a quiet oasis where the players were clearly enjoying their time together, even though its been just two weeks since they were all playing in the final matches of the Cambodian domestic league season. Hardly sufficient time to prepare properly for the most important tournament of their young careers. "They've all worked very hard, I'm very proud of them and I've seen great improvement over the last few months. We were a bit lucky in qualifying and I hope we will have more luck in our next three games too," said Sovannara as he handed me a football as a souvenir of my visit.
Assistant coach - Bouy Dary
Assistant coach - Tep Long Rachana
Assistant coach - Prak Sovanny
Part of the National Football Centre complex in Samrong Krom district


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