Cambodia head coach Lee Tae Hoon has one nagging worry, the backline, when the national team get down to repeat their inaugural edition success of 2009 in the BIDC Cup, the expanded version of which has now been reformatted as the Mekong Region Youth International Football Tournament.
The six-team event, limited to U21 sides from the Mekong region, kicks off at Olympic Stadium this week with Cambodia’s chief strategist desperate to overturn a string of disappointing results for the national team at various levels over the last 12 months.
Lee, who has 12 years of playing and coaching experience behind him, is very much aware of the pressures he and the team are under to produce tangible results on the pitch following a year of tottering form and tormenting times.
The 40-year-old South Korean has come under fire for some of his preferences and choices, omissions and commissions, as much as the team members for their general lack of focus, inability to blend as one and familiar failings in endurance.
In the two years since that BIDC Cup success, there has been very little for Cambodian football fans to cheer, but plenty to bemoan. Cambodia failed to make the cut in the 2010 Suzuki Cup, beaten on goal difference in the qualifiers held in Laos. Following an unremarkable victory over Macau in their AFC Challenge Cup playoff back in January, the trip to the Maldives in March for the group stage was a washout.
A solid 4-2 home win against Laos in their 2014 World Cup qualifier had offered hope of a historic advance to the second round, but a disastrous return leg in Vientiane that saw them limp out of contention yet again at the first hurdle.
As Lee Tae Hoon saw it, the defeats didn’t hurt much but the manner and the margins clearly did.
“Have we learnt lessons from all this? Yes, we have,” the South Korean told the Phnom Post in an exclusive interview before a training session at the Mekong University field on Wednesday.
“I do not want to get into this blame game. Yes, I may have made some wrong choices. When I pick a team, I do it in good faith.
“Sometimes those choices may not work and I am prepared to own those mistakes but what I have come to realise is that that there is skill in abundance but not the team ethic of everyone playing for all,” he added.
Lee revealed he was irritated that “very few” of his players currently understood the value of training, and in addition noted the issue of physicality.
“I feel the levels of fitness and strength are well short of what is required this day. As you can see, the team has just been overrun by the sheer physical aspects of it. Above all it takes time for a side to grate the grooves.
“I have been with the team for a little more than a year and, in my opinion, a team needs at least three to four years to form. I understand the frustrations of not winning big, but the reality is you can’t win big unless you grow big and good,” the coach said, touching on the generalities.
With regard to the BIDC Cup specifics, Lee made it amply clear that while the team is as eager as ever to defend the title, he is looking well beyond this.
“Our prime target is the SEA Games in Indonesia next month. We will be happy to grab all the positives from this [tournament next week].”
Preparations could have been better, admitted the coach. “Rain has been a factor. The holiday breaks set us back a bit and there were some administrative problems to deal with,” he said.
“Overall, the team has been working well. Our gym session last month seemed to have produced some good results and our nutritional awareness campaign is also beginning to make an impact. I expect the team to be lot more physically better off after the next few weight training sessions.
“If I have to pinpoint one grey area, it is the backline. We have couple of good players, but the back wall is so important and it is all about that good mix of strength and flexibility, ability to hold the line. I am working on it.
“Since the numbers are not with me it is hard to get a good bench. I am happy with the strikers and the midfield and the three goal-keepers we have are doing a good job.”
BIDC Cup contenders Thailand have a well-rounded side that could create a ripple or two, while performances of the Laotian teams in different age groups have been remarkably consistent.
Vietnam have managed to infuse greater purpose and strength in its youth football projects in recent times and the knock-on effect has been very encouraging. Myanmar continue to be an unknown element but, going by the popularity of the game and its level of activity, they boasts a relatively good squad that can trouble the best on its day.
But one team that has aroused special interest is Chinese provincial champions Wuhan Hongxing FC, the only club side to figure in a field of national teams. Being a club side, they have a good mix and vast competitive experience and could easily be the talk of the town if they live up to their reputation.
As hosts of the event, Cambodia’s preference was to join Laos and Myanmar in Group B. Vietnam, Thailand and Wuhan Hongxing FC, China are clubbed in Group A.
“It is a big boost for football development in the Mekong belt and its timing will also help SEA Games preparations for not just Cambodia but others like Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar,” Football Federation of Cambodia President Sao Sokha noted during his address at the official draw held in Phnom Penh last month.
Bank for Investment and Development of Cambodia, a financial institution founded by Vietnamese companies, is the title sponsor, while local mobile phone operators Metfone is the tournament’s main sponsor. Phnom Penh-based NagaWorld and Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group of Vietnam are stepping in as co-sponsors of the event, the first edition of which involving Laos, Cambodia and two teams from Vietnam was held in 2009.
“We started it in a small way and now it has grown bigger. Our aim is to help development of football among youth in Mekong region and as a bank operating in three countries in the region, we are determined to support this effort,” BIDC CEO Ngugen Van Hien said in his address after the formal draw.
The signing ceremony of a Memorandum of Understanding between BIDC and the FFC was presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnam premier Nguyen Tan Dung in Phnom Penh on April 24, paving the way for the latest edition of the cup.
The six teams, split into two groups, will play a one-round league with the top two teams advancing to criss-cross semifinals. The grand final is slated for the following Sunday, and there will be no third place playoff.
Along with the glittering trophy, the champion team will get a cash reward of US$20,000 and gold medals for each of the 25 members on the team. The runners-up will get $15,000, while both losing semifinalists will collect $10,000 each. The event’s top scorer is assured of an individual bonus of $1,000.
Referees and assistant referees from the 2011 FIFA list have been drafted in to officiate during the tournament.
Thanks to NagaWorld, a huge bonanza awaits the Cambodian team with the FFC being the main beneficiaries. In the event of Cambodia winning the tournament or finishing second, NagaWorld will give the Federation a cash prize of $30,000 or $20,000 respectively.
The FFC will also get $2,000 for every goal scored by the home team excluding penalty shootouts.
|Cambodian team list|
Sou Yaty (MND)
Um Vichet (MND)
Sar Sophea (PKR)