Cambodia scale new heights
© AFP

With a reputation as perennial strugglers even in regional competitions, Cambodia are not accustomed to making headlines for their footballing exploits. However, the south-east Asians managed just that after they soared 12 places to 154th, their highest ever position, in March's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.

This achievement is all the more significant when one takes into account the fact that, as recently as May of last year, the Cambodians were to be found languishing at 185th, just three places above the lowest ranking of their history. From those dark days early in 2006, when they plunged to 188th, the team has bounced back to steadily haul themselves up the global table.

This, in fact, is their second 12-place rise in just a few months, with their performances during last October's AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers a key factor in their double-digit climb in November’s ranking table. On this occasion, their record position is indebted to the national team’s success in February's 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying play-off, a tie in which they edged out Macau 5-4 on aggregate.

Play-off success
With Korean coach Lee Tae-Hoon pulling the strings, star striker Sam El Nasa emerged as the hero for Cambodia, with his three-goal haul crucial to their victory. The Preah Khan Reach marksman was in unstoppable form during the sides' first-leg meeting at Phnom Penh on 9 February, scoring second half brace as his team ran out 3-1 winners.

Entering the return with a two-goal cushion, the Cambodians looked on course for another win when Thailand-based striker Khim Borey extended their advantage on the stroke of half-time. However, the home team rallied after interval with three goals in the space of 13 minutes, drawing them level on aggregate. With so much at stake and the tie delicately poised, it was again El Nasa who rose to the occasion, striking in extra time to seal the Cambodians’ place in the qualifiers for Asia's second-tier competition.

The preliminary triumph re-ignited the nation's dreams of reliving their glory days of the 1970s, when they were found competing among Asia's elite. A little less than four decades ago, the Cambodians, then known as the Khmer Republic team, produced one of the biggest sensations in the AFC Asian Cup history by finishing fourth in the continental finals at Thailand 1972. In the process, they pulled off a resounding 4-0 demolition of Kuwait to reach the last four only to lose to Iran in the semi-finals and miss out on bronze by going down to Thailand on penalties.

Fresh disappointments
They have, however, made little impression on the international stage since then, with their involvement in the group phase of the 2006 AFC Challenge Cup their last appearance on the Asian stage. Sadly, this absence is set to continue after, having been boosted by their qualifying win over Macau, the Cambodians were brought back down back to earth with a bump in the recent group phase of qualifying for next year's AFC Challenge Cup. Indeed, the south-east Asians ended their campaign pointless to receive the wooden spoon in a section that also featured eventual qualifiers Maldives, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

They got off to a miserable start by losing to Maldives 4-0 on 23 March before conceding another three unanswered goals against Tajikistan two days later. In Friday’s closing match with Kyrgyzstan, Phnom Penh Crow’s Sokumpheak Kouch was twice on target to draw his side level but his brace was ultimately in vain as Cambodia lost out 4-3.

Nonetheless, despite this failure, the team have shown they are blessed individual players talented enough to cause the odd upset. Having achieved their highest ever ranking position, Cambodia will now hope to make similar progress in their local and regional competitions.