In recent weeks at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, its pitch green will newly installed artificial turf, Cambodia’s national team has hosted two FIFA qualifying games: against Singapore and Afghanistan.
More than 60,000 people attended each match, in support of their Angkor Warriors. The games were discussed across social media, and these days it’s not uncommon to see fans wearing jerseys of their national team. The country is wild about football. And that’s a big change from just a few years ago.
Wearing a sticker of the Cambodian flag on her cheek at the match against Singapore, Chun Sokhim, a student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said she was attending her first stadium game. “I have come here today because I want to encourage the national team to be strong and win this match,” she said.
Such support is great, Cambodian striker Khoun Laboravy told VOA Khmer later. “It has encouraged me to play even harder,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t feel tired when there are so many people cheering like this.”
It’s been 10 years since he first played, and back then, audiences barely filled the seats. Sao Sokha, president of Football Federation of Cambodia, said the sudden support came as the footballers improved their game. The youth team has done especially well, he said.
Kem Ley, a social development researcher, said the Cambodian team has been helped by access to technology, which has allowed them do more research and learn from other countries. The country has also developed over all, allowing more sports. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has also aided in the development of the game, he said. Sales from advertising and tickets have helped, too, he said.
“The more support they receive, the more the National Olympic Committee, or sport committee, can invest in children who like sports, to start training them at a young age,” he said.
All of this has been a big change in just the last few years. Tong Soprach, a fan for the past 30 years, said the game lost a lot of support in the past, due to rifts between FFC leaders, match-fixing scandals and general lack of support for the players. Now those are things of the past, he said. The players are in good health and are playing well, even if they still lose some matches. They recently tied in a match against Myanmar.
“The important thing is that the footballers have done their best, even though the result was equal,” he said of that game. “But as supporters, we are happy.”
Meanwhile, Cambodia has won the right to host the Southeast Asian Games, in 2023. That brings a new round of hope to players like Khoun Laboravy, who said he expects the next generation of players to be even better.
Kem Ley suggested even more investment in the sport, especially in training younger players, while there is momentum. Having fans in the future, he said, relies on having good players in the future.