"We can do it" - Prak Sovannara
Cambodian national football coach Prak Sovannara will lead his squad of 18 players into the AFC Challenge Cup qualifying group matches in Bangladesh this weekend with the belief that his unfancied team can qualify for next year's finals in India. "We have a real chance to qualify, and I believe we can do it," said the softly-spoken 36-year-old at the team's training headquarters at the National Football Center Tuesday. "We don't know too much about Bangladesh, though they are the home team so we know they will want to win. We know how to play against the other two teams, Myanmar and Macau, and I feel we can beat both of them if we play to our ability. My target is two wins and a draw. That should see us through."
Sovannara, who is working without a contract after his original agreement ended following the AFF Suzuki Cup finals in Indonesia in December last year, has just returned with his squad from a two-week training getaway in Vietnam where they honed their fitness with three practice matches against local opposition. The three matches they played were against Vietnam's best club, The Cong from Hanoi, which Cambodia lost 6-2, against a team of Cameroonian professionals, with a 5-2 scoreline in Cambodia's favour, and a final 2-2 draw against HCMC Club (formerly Saigon Port). Sovannara was particularly pleased with the outcome. "The results don't matter so much as my main priority was that we bonded together as a team, as a unit, with one mind. That's so important. I try to get the players to understand how to cope with hard training, to change their attitudes and their lifestyle, their surroundings, everything really. It was a good test for the players and very successful in my view. I was able to keep the squad together for nearly two weeks and to work with them very closely. They can see the benefit especially when they get the chance to travel abroad to Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh."
Time away together like the Vietnam trip is a godsend to a squad like Cambodia, particularly as the players have recently been involved in Hun Sen Cup action and their time with the national coach has been disrupted and piecemeal. Sovannara took the opportunity to reinforce one of his favourite coaching tools, video-replay. He's used this before especially with the Suzuki Cup games, as well as videoing some of his own training sessions, and then the practice matches in Vietnam. "It's something I'm very keen to use to get the players thinking on the same lines. It's been very successful - they can see exactly what I mean and I have seen them change and improve as a result. We sit down in the evenings as a group to watch the video and discuss everything, not only the football itself and tactics, but also lifestyle and attitude on and off the football field."
One of the problems he faces is the quality of the Cambodia Premier League. "I would like the teams to improve the quality, raise their standards and become more professional. Phnom Penh Crown are a good example of a club who are definitely heading in the right direction. It can sometimes be very hard to change the attitudes of the players when they join the national team. But I feel I have a good relationship with the clubs, I have worked hard to build the link as when I started there was nothing." One hot topic under discussion recently has involved Cambodians in countries like France and America coming back home to play for the national team. Sovannara is in favour. "I will welcome them if they come here for a long period of time, to get used to the conditions and the style of play, and if they are better than the players we already have. There's a lot of talk about it right now." He is also very much in favour of current Cambodia Premier League players seeking fame and fortune abroad. "I would love some Cambodian players to play abroad. I try to motivate them and instil confidence in them that they are good enough to compete with the likes of the best players in Vietnam and Thailand," he said. He identified three key players in his squad for the forthcoming matches in Bangladesh. "I believe these players will be very important for us in the coming games, Tieng Tiny in defence, San Narith in midfield and in attack, Kouch Sokumpheak."
Cambodia begin their qualification attempt on Sunday with their opening match of three against the group hosts, Bangladesh, at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. They then have two days to prepare for a game against Macau Tuesday, before facing Myanmar Thursday in their remaining fixture. A look at the latest FIFA Coca-Cola world rankings reveal that Cambodia have jumped above Bangladesh to 175th spot, with the hosts at 178th while Myanmar are the best-ranked in the tournament at 159th. The minnows of Macau, who beat Mongolia in a pre-qualification decider last week, are ranked at 195th. However, rankings can count for nothing when the teams face each other on the pitch and in the heat of battle. Sovannara said, "Cambodian players have very good mental strength and toughness. In the Suzuki Cup, even though we conceded goals, we never gave up, we kept focused and that pleased me very much. The players still need to improve their self confidence when they have the ball, but they are physically strong enough, and I was very happy with the players attitude at the last tournament. They believed in what we are trying to achieve and had a belief in me and the football federation."
"For the Bangladesh game we will focus on our defence initially and look to counter-attack until we know how strong they are. We will need at least a draw against them. In the Suzuki Cup, I learnt that my players could adapt well to different situations. In the qualifying games we concentrated on attack and scoring goals, while in the finals we had to change tactics and become more aware of our defensive duties, as the [opposition] teams were so much stronger. The players didn't let me down," he said with obvious pride. It clearly means a lot to him to coach the country he represented for six years in the 1990s, which is why he is currently working on a month-to-month basis. "I understand the situation. I understand the stance of the federation who spent a lot of money last year, and I am happy to remain as national coach as I love to work with the team," he concluded, as he donned a shirt and joined his players for a practice session. With a man like Sovannara committed to improving Cambodia's international standing, the nation's footballers are in good hands.