Cambodian captain Kouch Sokumpheak is confident his side can defeat Macau in the opening round of FIFA World Cup qualifying and advance to the group stages where they could face some of Asia’s biggest teams.
The draw for the first round of qualifying was conducted last month and will see the 12 lowest-ranked teams compete to determine which six teams will join the 34 other nations in an expanded second round.
Cambodia were drawn to face Macau, a result Sokumpheak was happy with.
“I’m happy that the country (Cambodia) met with a team of similar capacity,” the 28-year-old told Football Channel Asia.
“For me personally, I have confidence and hope that the players are also confident of giving their best efforts when meeting with Macau to have the opportunity to go forward and play against strong Asian teams.”
One man who knows Cambodia well is former coach Scott O’Donell, now technical director for the All India Football Federation.
O’Donell, born in Sydney, was coach of the Cambodian national team on two occasions from 2005 to 2007, and then again from June 2009 to August 2010.
“I think they should be confident of progressing,” he told Football Channel Asia. “There are some good young players coming through in Cambodia and the quality of football and competitiveness in the Cambodian League is much better than when I first went to Cambodia in 2005.”
Cambodia narrowly missed qualification for last year’s AFF Suzuki Cup, a 1-0 loss to Myanmar in the penultimate game ultimately proving their downfall. However, O’Donell sees only positives going forward.
“The current state of football in Cambodia is getting better,” he said.
“They now have two National Training Centres, the new one with four fields, dormitories, classrooms, gym etc. It is an excellent facility.
“They have started their own residential academy and a few of the clubs, Phnom Penh Crown FC and Svay Reing FC, have started to take youth development seriously as well which will pay off in the long run.”
If they do get past Macau, they will move into the second round where the 40 teams will be split into eight groups of five teams, where they eight group winners plus the four best runners-up will advance to the final round of qualifying, as well as qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, which AFC announced this week will be held in the UAE.
“I think it will be tough for them in the next round if they make it past Macau but I also do not think they will embarrass themselves either,” O’Donell said.
“Gone are the days where Cambodia are the whipping boys. Cambodians are so passionate about football, they love it and I am sure if they continue to develop their young players, expand their grassroots programs and continue to educate their coaches, it won’t be long before we see Cambodian players playing in some of the other leagues in SE Asia.”
Sokumpheak, who plays domestically with Nagaworld FC, is hopeful that the Angkor Warriors success can help drive the development of football in the South East Asian nation.
“Cambodia are one of the countries that are developing,” the midfielder said.
“So I hope that the national team of Cambodia can give their best so football in Cambodia can continue to progress.”