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Ravy Khek (left) and Joachim Fickert - photo courtesy of Joachim Fickert


Cambodia's star player was Hok Sochetra. Two of his stories registered two spots in the NR Top 10 stories - AFC Marketing/Shot

Horses grazing and drinking from
puddles of water at Seam Reap Stadium
- NR photo

The Old Stadium where the Cambodian National team plays shows wear and tear - NR photo


Cambodian boys and girls playing football in the driving rain at the Siem Reap stadium - NR photo

 

 

CAMBODIAN FOOTBALL
Rising...From The Ashes - October, 2000

James Loving/National Radio Text Service

 

 

For many years during the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge Civil War and the Coup d'Edat of July 5-6, 1997 there was no organized soccer being played in the country. The conflicts destroyed the records of the history of Cambodian football. All that can be pieced together at this time is from the memory of those who were there or made mental notes.

 

Wednesday October 31, 2000

RISING FROM THE ASHES

When you think of Cambodia your more likely to think about the "Killing Fields" and the millions of innocent people whom perished from those atrocities. Hopefully that was then and its over and this is now.... The rebuilding process of a nation and its people.

One aspect of Cambodia that is rising from its war torn ashes is its National Football team. Under the leadership of Cambodian Football Federation president, Ravy Khek and coach Joachim Fickert from Germany. Kheck also wears a second hat. As a member of the FUNCINPEC PARTY he is also holds the title as a Secretary of State in the Ministry of Commerce.

For many years during the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge Civil War and the Coup d'Edat of July 5-6, 1997 there was no organized soccer being played in the country. The conflicts destroyed the records of the history of Cambodian football. All that can be pieced together at this time is from the memory of those who were there or made mental notes.

Cambodia is remembered as being one of the strongest teams in the region during the 1950's and 60's, Khek noted. By his recollection Cambodia never finished 1st in a regional tournament but did finish 2nd or 3rd early on in its history. When the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia Khek said football virtually disappeared.

They were strong [in the 50's and 60's] he noted and pointed out that the team was competitive with Thailand, India and Burma who were then the best in the region, under the leadership of HRH Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Fickert recalled that Cambodia had success in the 60's with wins over India, Japan and China.

The now 40 year-old Khek has spent time in the United States. He attended UCLA University in Los Angeles, California from 1979-84, which helps explain his impeccable English language skills. After returning to Cambodia from France for the 1993 elections he then began his quest to resurrect football in his war torn country.

"There was no contact with the external world," Khek recalled of the time that the sport wasn't being played in his country. It was a bleak time for Cambodian football and Khek recognized what had to be done to revive the game.

Khek then organized a football league in 1994. A National team was assembled who went on to lose all of their 1995 SEA Game matches while giving up 32 goals and scoring zero.

They then applied for the qualifying round of the World Cup for the first time ever in 1996. Per Kheck's request the German Football Federation assigned Fickert to coach the Cambodian squad in June 1996. It was his job to organize a team of low paid players with limited training to be competitive.

You can bet there are no multimillionaire dollar players on this Cambodian National squad. Members receive $100 an month plus a few hundred extra for pocket money when they travel on the road. The under 23 squad receives $60 a month.

"They get more money when they win," Fickert mentioned.

Fikert noted that in Cambodia the pay isn't so bad. His example was that the pay scale for police and teachers is $20 a month. Garment workers are receiving a $40 monthly wage. A college professor recently told me that he earns $25 per month.

With Fickert at the helm the team then made a dramatic improvement finishing 3rd in the 1997 Presidents Cup played inn the Philippines. The squad continued their winning ways in the 1997 SEA Games finishing 5th out of the 10 competitors.

HRH Prince Ranariddh Sihanouk contributed $11,000 to the team after the Presidents Cup success. Prime Minister Hun Sen contributed $10,000 to the squad after Sea Games. The money was divided among the 20 players.

In his travels around the country Khek has noticed the excitement of his countrymen who seem to be embracing the game. "I know when I travel in the forests I see young people playing in the fields, " he said.

But is the game really capturing the attention of the Cambodians?

On a road trip through the Poipet Cambodia -Thailand border crossing to Phnom Penh I noticed that there was very little or no electricity in many of the villages. Electric wires on poles????....No such thing. So how could those living in remote areas know about the league and of any resurgence of the game in their country?

"They have TV's," Kheck said. They watch [television] by attaching them to car batteries."

I later stopped in Siem Reap [province of the famed Angkor Wat Temples] to see the Provinces first division team in the Cambodian Premiere League. Due to the rain the game was canceled and rescheduled and played in Phnom Penh but.... I was about to find what Khek was talking about.

At the stadium at game time... the rain was pouring down. Horses were drinking from puddles of water and grazing by the side of the field. Boys and girls were on the pitch playing football. The driving rain didn't matter. The joy and excitement on their faces exemplified of how sports can help bring people together. It was exactly what Khek was talking about... children playing the game [in the fields].

The reality is that Cambodia is not about to play Manchester United anytime soon. The program is learning how to crawl, walk and then run to become competitive at the International level. To achieve that they have to work with what little they have.... Basically the bare necessities. They play at the dilapidated Old Stadium that is in poor condition. Blotches of dirt crop up on an uneven playing surface. The team will have to deal with that small [approximately 6,000 seat ] facility until the 50,000 seat Olympic Stadium is renovated.

This is the first year of the 10-team 1st division Cambodian Premiere [Football] League where the National team members play for various teams. Three Province teams are represented, Siem Reap, Prey Veng and Kampot. The league also includes: Interior, Phnom Penh Police, Khemara, the National Police, two Cambodian Military teams, the Navy, Keila Reith.

Through its GOAL-program FIFA pledged one million dollars over a four-year period to help develop football for the youths of Cambodia. The sport is generating interest and Khek can see the results in the success of the country's younger players who may eventually become National team members. Philip Morris, Marlboro and Tiger Beer came on board with their financial assistance and sponsorship.

"We were not members of FIFA and the AFC. Once we became members we received help," he said.

It's been a rocky road in trying to restore the sport to its former prominence. The plan now is to get the team to be competitive on an International basis, which equates to training, money and experience.

"Sixty-per-cent of the people in Cambodia are under age 20," he said. The under 16 team has won a number of its matches while the under 19 club is much weaker."

Of his current National team Khek notes that they are developing. "Unfortunately haven't reached the top level. In three to five years I think we can make it to the top level [of Southeast Asian competition]. Our goal is to get exposure to the competition at the highest level."

The upcoming Tiger Cup is a major event for the team but Khek doesn't hope for what his team can accomplish in the competition. "I'm a pragmatic person," he said. "I don't hope." He did express his desire to see the team be strong enough for at least a 5th place finish by the 2001 SEA Games.

Of the 12 questions I prepared [by request] for the interview Khek was particularly interested in one.... Number 12. Does football help raise the spirit of the country?

"Something raises the spirit when you win but we're not winning," he pointed out. "I hope in developing football I bring it. I want to show that with true team spirit that you can do a lot of things."

I was soon to find out that Khek is also the moral leader of the club. He often dines with them when they are in training. At a dinner prior to their departure for test matches in Malaysia and Thailand he gave a spirited speech that was well received. As a politician and president of the Football Federation Khek's rational of life may be the main ingredient for the future success of Cambodian football.

"I like the balancing," he said. "The quality of life is the balance of your intellectual and physical capabilities."


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