| PHNOM PENH
PHNOM PENH Oct 8 With its crumbling concrete
terraces and rugged turf, Cambodia's optimistically-named
Olympic Stadium is the humble setting for one of the opening
matches of world soccer's biggest competition.
While memories of Italy's dramatic penalty shootout victory
over France in last year's final remain etched on the minds of
millions of fans, the next World Cup, which starts in 976 days,
is far from anyone's thoughts.
However, for Asia's minnows, the long and near-impassable
road to the 2010 finals in South Africa begins this week, with
the sport's whipping boys needing to pull off at least a dozen
shock victories to secure one of the region's four berths.
Sitting 178th in the FIFA rankings and without a trophy in
five decades of playing international soccer, Cambodia's
cash-strapped part-timers admit they do not have a hope of
When they play Turkmenistan in Phnom Penh on Thursday, it is
all about national pride.
"We don't have a chance but I'm ready to give everything for
my country," said Teab Vathanak, Cambodia's top striker, who
works night shifts as a security guard in a Phnom Penh casino.
"I don't want our people to keep saying Cambodia are always
Forty-three teams have entered the Asian qualifiers, which
feature three knockout rounds and two round-robin group phases.
As well as the four qualifiers, the fifth-ranked side will
play off against Oceania's top team for one of the 32 World Cup
Cambodia's Australian coach Scott O'Donell says the World
Cup finals are way beyond their reach, although he is confident
his spirited team of labourers, soldiers, security guards and
traffic policemen can reach the second round for the first time.
"It's achievable, if we play to our potential we can cause
an upset," O'Donell told Reuters during a training session at
Phnom Penh's dilapidated 1950s-built stadium.
"Maybe they (Turkmenistan) think it's going to be easy, but
I don't think so."
He added: "If we reach the second round and meet another
team who sneaked in, maybe we can even get to the third round."
After being introduced to soccer in the 1960s by former
colonial masters France, Cambodia were fast improvers and
reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup in 1972.
However, a protracted civil war followed, including the
1975-1979 Khmer Rouge "killing fields" genocide, which curtailed
their progress and led to a 23-year absence from the sport.
Thol Sothearith, who earns $25 a month in the Cambodian
army, believes taking part in the World Cup is an achievement in
"I feel great to be in the World Cup, win or lose, it
doesn't matter," said the 22-year-old defender, tying up the
laces on a pair of well-worn boots.
"I bought these myself for $7," he added with a smile and a
laugh. "They're cheap but they work well."
Sothearith is part of one of the world's leakiest defences,
who have conceded 22 goals in their last five matches. He
compares his team to players from the big European leagues and
says Cambodia's poverty means there is little chance of success.
"We lack support, both morally and materially," said
Sothearith, who like most of the players travels along the
dusty, potholed roads to training on an aging Honda motorcycle.
"We don't have good enough nutrition, our pay is low. There
is no incentive to play well."
In a country where a third of the 14 million people live on
less than $1 a day, striker Vathanak's monthly salary of $130
make him a high roller, although he admits that having two jobs
makes his game suffer.
"Being a footballer and working at the same time is never
easy," he said.
"But I love the game, so I keep playing. I'm trying to save
money to buy some new boots."
Policeman Sam El Nasa is one of the team's most experienced
players, a veteran of Cambodia's last World Cup "campaign" in
2001, when they drew 1-1 with the Maldives but lost their other
five matches, letting in 22 goals and scoring only twice.
"That's an old story, it's the past, forget it," Nasa said
"Let's see what we can do this time around."
Although he is hungry for success, coach O'Donell says there
is more to life than winning matches.
"Teams like us reaching the World Cup, it's not going to
happen," said the television soccer pundit and former Australian
"They know this is the biggest game of their lives. They're
doing this for their country and for themselves. All we can ask
for is their best."