FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at what the future could hold for Cambodia as they begin life under Keisuke Honda.
It was a move that truly captured the imagination and rightfully so.
An internationally-recognised footballer – arguably an all-time great of Asia – taking charge of a nation ranked 166th in the world in his managerial debut, while still yet to hang up his boots.
On Monday evening, the reign of Keisuke Honda begins when Cambodia host Malaysia in a friendly at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia are a proud footballing nation with legions of passionate fans that regularly fill up the 50,000-capacity Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, but success has been something that has eluded them since they were founded in 1933.
Only on one occasion – back in 1972 – did the Cambodians qualify for the AFC Asian Cup and, even in their own region of Southeast Asia, they have constantly have had to play a lesser role behind the likes of Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Even recently, while the likes of Myanmar and Philippines have taken significant strides forward, the Angkor Warriors are yet to really make an impact, having lost their last ten games in the AFF biennial Suzuki Cup across three editions from 2004 to 2016.
So, what exactly can be expected of Cambodia under Honda?
Genuine star quality at the helm of Cambodia
It was quite understandable that last month’s appointment of former Japan international Honda – a real Asian icon – was greeted with plenty of hype and fanfare.
After all, Honda not only starred for Japan at three FIFA World Cups, but also had plenty of success in Europe with VVV-Venlo, CSKA Moscow and – most notably – AC Milan.
Given all his experience and having played under some famous coaches, Honda will have no shortage of knowledge on how he believes he Cambodian football can be improved.
Still, it will take time to implement his ideas and see them bear fruit and to expect immediate results under a fledgling coach like Honda would be unfair.
Even if a managerial great like Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti were to be handed the reins, it would not make Cambodia world-beaters overnight.
There is also the fact that Honda still has playing commitments having recently joined A-League giants Melbourne Victory, and it is understood that handful of locally-based assistants to aid his coaching role when he is in Australia.
Does this make Cambodia dark horses for the upcoming Suzuki Cup?
Realistically, no. And that should not be the expectation straight away.
Starting with Monday’s game against the Malaysians, the first step is for Cambodia to start matching these perceived ‘stronger’ sides on a regular basis and even chalking up a few wins along the way.
Instead, the upcoming Suzuki Cup which begins in November will provide the perfect litmus test as the Cambodians – taking on Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and Laos – should be looking to pick up a few points and cause an upset or two along the way.
Anything else would be a bonus but it is more important for the Angkor Warriors to make slow but steady progress in the initial stages of Honda’s tenure.
Do Cambodia have enough quality for Honda to succeed?
There is certainly talent – Chan Vathanaka, Prak Mony Udom and Thierry Chantha Bin to name but a few – although the domestic league is still some way behind its regional counterparts and will need time to start churning out wave after wave of outstanding prospects.
Despite his disappointing spell in Malaysia with Pahang, Vathanaka remains one of the most-talented players Cambodia have ever produced and there is no reason why he should not continue to play a starring role.
One of Honda’s most-crucial tasks now will be to help this young but talented generation – and the upcoming one – reach the next level and find the necessary consistency that often proves the difference at the highest level.
A quick glance at the Cambodia squad suggests they should have no issues challenging the likes of Thailand and Vietnam with just a couple of tweaks in the right areas.
From the erratic but occasionally brilliant goalkeeper Sou Yaty, experienced defenders Hong Pheng and Soeuy Visal, anchorman Chantha Bin and nippy forward Keo Sokpheng, there is plenty of quality at Honda’s disposal.
And that is without including Vathanaka and dynamic midfielder Chrerng Polroth – the 21-year-old who was earlier this year signed by Thai giants Buriram United – who will both be absent from Monday’s match.
Success in Southeast Asia should be just the beginning
Unfortunately, for Honda, the timing of his appointment means that the qualifying campaign for the next couple of major international tournaments – the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup – are still far away.
The Suzuki Cup would appear to be the first chance for Honda’s Cambodia to make an impact but he would only have been in charge of three months by then, and it remains to be seen if he will be present given his playing commitments with Victory.
— AFF Suzuki Cup (@affsuzukicup) September 5, 2018
However, next year’s Southeast Asian Games in Philippines could be interesting.
For one, while it is an Under-22 tournament, Vietnam and Malaysia’s success at this year’s AFC Under-23 Championship and the recent Asian Games, has illustrated how success at age-group football could be just as important.
Then, there is also the examples of teams like Thailand and Myanmar, who used their youth teams to form a nucleus of promising talents, regularly playing with each other against high-level opposition, that would then graduate to be the core of the senior side.
In all fairness, given the passionate nature of their fans, Cambodia have never really needed to give their fans any added incentive to support the national team.
However, the presence of Honda means that there will now be plenty of curious glances coming their way from all across Asia, and even elsewhere across the globe.
The added attention – and pressure – can both be a good or bad thing but Cambodia have never been ones to be overawed by the occasion, and it helps that their new manager was known throughout his career for his professionalism and cool demeanour.
As ever, hope springs eternal at the start of a new chapter but it is imperative that Honda’s managerial debut is treated with care and patience.
The Cambodians could on to achieve good things in the near future and great things could be expected of Keisuke Honda, the manager.
If all goes according to plan, this headline-grabbing appointment could just turn out to be a match made in heaven.