The recent announcement from the Football Federation of Cambodia that they were “going for gold” at the SEA Games has thrown into light a rather sad fact, and that is that the national team has hardly had any success at any level. So, has there been a golden era of Cambodian football?
To read about Cambodia going for gold click here
A very brief history of Cambodian football
Originally brought to Cambodia by French colonialists ,football fast became the national sport. The Kingdom were admitted to FIFA in 1953 upon independence, and lost their first international match in 1954 5-2 to what was then known as Malaya.
Between 1954 and 1970 the Kingdom of Cambodia mainly played friendly matches as it sought to consolidate football in the country. Yet while it did not achieve anything successful for itself during this period, the country were pivotal in helping allies North Korea qualify for their famous entry into the 1966 World Cup held in England.
You can read how Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the 1966 World Cup here.
During this period it would not enter any major competitions, including the Asia Cup, or World Cup, but this was to change during the era of the Khmer Republic.
To read about the Khmer Republic click here.
The Golden Era of Cambodian football – Qualifying for the Asia Cup
With Lon Nol newly installed as the rather unpopular strongman president of Cambodia (now known as the Khmer Republic) new attempts at national reconciliation and patriotism were attempted, with one of these being football.
Under the Khmer Republic the nation were to enter the 1972 Asian Cup, and not only enter, but qualifying in relatively impressive fashion.
They qualified from their initial 3 team group in second place after loss a against Malaysia and a victory against the minnows of Hong Kong, before creating a shock in the semi-finals. Here they were to beat an extremely strong Indonesian side 2-0 in Bangkok, thus qualifying for the 1972 Asia Cup, but also setting up a final against the home side, Thailand.
The Khmer Republic were to put on a brave show in the final, losing 4-2, but the main point was that they had qualified for the main competition.
Cambodia at the 1972 Asia Cup
The 5th edition of the Asia Cup was like the qualifiers, held in Thailand, with the Khmer Republic pitted against South Korea and Kuwait in a three team group. Things did not initially look great, with them losing 4-1 to the republic of Korea, with their consolation goal coming from Douer Sokhom in the 82 minute.
It was though against Kuwait where the team were to shine and indeed qualify for the next round, with the Khmer team winning 4-0, all the more impressive as the Koreans had lost their previous match to Kuwait 2-1. The Khmer Republic duly qualified for the nest round as runners-up on goal difference.
The team were pitted against the might Iranians in the semi-final, going 1-0 down in the 13th minute before Douer Sokhom scored an equalizer, his third of the tournament and for a while it looked like there would be a match. Yet although the Khmer Republic fought hard, the match was put to bed in the 47th minute leaving Iran to hold onto a 2-1 win. The Iranians would later go on to win the tournament after beating, ironically South Korea in the final.
The End of the Golden Era of Cambodian Football
The Khmer Republic were to eventually finish fourth after narrowly losing on penalties to Thailand, with Iran beating South Korea 2-1 in the final courtesy of a winner deep into extra-time.
Finishing 4th in their first ever appearance at the AFC Asia Cup, as well as having Douer Sokhom finishing as third top-scorer on 3 goals should have in normal times heath a bright future, normal tinder these were not.
And for a time the future did indeed look bright for Cambodian football until the Khmer Rouge took power not three years later and up to 1/3 of the population were killed. Sadly of course if those who dined were footballers, another factor that was to see back the Cambodian football scene by many decades.
To read about sport in Democratic Kampuchea click here.
Football would return to the country upon liberation, but due to sanctions it would not be until the 1990’s when the country could again take part in recognized international competition.
A New Golden Era of Cambodian Football?
Sadly the long absence from the international game led to not only the nation stagnating, but also other regional powerhouses jumping in to take their place, such as Japan, much of the middle-east and now even Australia.
Despite this though football within the Kingdom is defiantly “on the up”, with a new professional championship the Cambodian Premier League (CPL) being launched to much fanfare, a number of top foreign players joining the league, as well as a crop of talented young Khmer players ready to take on the world. .
To read about the Cambodian Premier League click here.
Internationally too the country had made great strides, having hired the world-renowned, if not controversial Honda as coach, as well as now hosting major events such as the AFF Under 22 Championship, and now the 32nd South-East Asian games.
Whether though this can truly be considered a golden era of Cambodian football will depend squarely on results. Should Cambodia manage the seemingly impossible and get a medal at Cambodia 2023 then we truly will have something to compare to the great team of 1972.
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