Football is Cambodia's most popular sport
Southeast Asian nation were continental semi-finalists in 1972
Football development growing with strong support from FIFA Forward
Football is, needless to say, the most popular sport in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Across the 25 provinces of the tropical country located in the southern portion of the Indochinese peninsula, the game is played by people of all age levels and from all walks of life.
Football took root when French settlers first brought the game to Cambodia in the early 20th century. In fact, the popularity of the game was growing so fast that the country's football governing body, the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) came into formation in 1933. It became affiliated to FIFA in 1953 before joining AFC four years later.
The Cambodia national team wasn't, however, formed until the country gained independence in 1953 following the end of French colonisation. The team, nicknamed Kouprey, played their first international game against Malaysia in 1956, which they lost 9-2 on home soil.
The game gained momentum in Cambodia during the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s. Known as a sports-loving king in Cambodia, he has been affectionately named as the country’s Preah Beidha Keila Cheat, or the Father of National Sports translated into English.
With royal support, the Kouprey's golden generation emerged. Spearheaded by ace-striker Doeur Sokhom, Cambodia rocked the traditional order in the 1972 AFC Asian Cup by finishing fourth. In the process, Sokhom scored four times, including opening the scoring in a famous 4-0 defeat of Kuwait as Cambodia impressed in their continental debut.
The team went on to taste their maiden international success, lifting the trophy in the 1973 President’s Cup. Despite losing to hosts Korea Republic 6-0 in the opener, they overcame the likes of Indonesia and Malaysia to storm to the final, where they played out a goalless draw against Myanmar to finish joint winners alongside their opponents.
The golden era didn't last long, however, with the rise of Khmer Rouge. It proved a period of footballing wilderness during which even the iconic Sokhom was tragically killed.
Cambodia returned from a long period in the international wilderness with their first FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign in 1995. They managed a point on the road to France 1998 although they failed to progress beyond the first round. Hok Sochetra, the country's all-time top international scorer with 20 goals, was on target as they held Indonesia to a 1-1 draw.
The breakthrough finally came in qualifying for Russia 2018 when Cambodia reached the second round after overcoming Macau over two legs. Proving that was no fluke, Cambodia repeated that feat in qualification for Qatar 2022 with a first-round aggregate victory against Pakistan.
With passion for the game re-ignited across the country, football development has picked up pace over recent years. Even more notable is what the FFC has achieved at the infrastructural and educational levels.
With strong support from FIFA Forward, a series of modern-level football pitches are being constructed with the necessary facilities in place. Meanwhile, youth academies are being established throughout the provinces and educational programs and seminars for coaches, match officials, as well as administrators, are commonplace.
"FIFA Forward has played a big part in our development work," FFC General Secretary Keo Sareth told FIFA.com. "One of the pillars of our focuses is improvement of decent and safe pitches throughout our country. With improved infrastructure and facilities, we hope we can reach the semi-final in the 2023 SEA Games when we play as hosts.
"This is our strategic plan named Road 2023. In order to fulfil our ambitions, Football Federation of Cambodia wishes to utilise the help of FIFA Forward to synergise the resources to complete the construction work."
Construction of 19 natural football pitches across 19 provinces
Establishment of 18 Provincial Football Academies
Development of match officials, coaches and instructors
Establishment of youth football leagues
Establishment of U-18 youth football league in 25 provinces/cities