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Svay Rieng FC

Svay Rieng and Cambodian football looking to catch up to Southeast Asia's big boys

19:51 GMT+4 16/01/2020
Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng, 2020
The general manager of Cambodian champions Svay Rieng, Christopher Grant believes that the country's standings in the region will "go boom" soon.


BY        ZULHILMI ZAINAL       Follow on Twitter


They may not be as well known as Buriram FC or Persib Bandung in Malaysia, but when Cambodian league champions Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng FC were in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, they made local fans take notice of them, through the results they produced in pre-season friendlies against Malaysia's top-tier sides.

They first produced a shock 4-0 thumping of 33-time Malaysia Cup champions Selangor on January 9, before recording a 2-1 come-from-behind win against Felda United two days later.

Hours before they were scheduled to take on Terengganu FC at the UM Arena on January 13, Goal sat down with Svay Rieng's general manager, Christopher Grant for a brief interview on the club's Malaysian visit, the building process he is overseeing, and Cambodian football's ascendancy.

Goal: Why are Svay Rieng here and why was Malaysia picked as the destination for the friendly tour?

Christopher Grant: We were looking at various options; at Vietnam, at Thailand, and decided that Malaysia is best suited for what we are looking for. We want to play in two or three very tough games against high quality opponents. The general environment [in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] is just perfect for us.

We're coming out of Cambodia for our pre-season because we have a lot of international competitions this year, we will take part in three international competitions as the Cambodian League champions; the ACC (ASEAN Club Championship), the Mekong Cup is relaunching at the end of the year, as well as the AFC Cup play-off tie against Laos' Master 7.

Based on all the international matches that we're going to take part in, we felt that it would be good preparation for us to go abroad and get the experience of taking on foreign clubs. Some of our players have never been out of the country before so they need to be accustomed to travelling, playing at different times, playing in a different environment, facing off against higher quality teams with different styles of play.

G: What do you do at the club and who is the owner?

CG: I had a stint with another Cambodian club; Phnom Penh Crown for one and a half year, then I focused on my company, Elite Soccer Coaching. It was then that Svay Rieng reached out to me, initially they wanted me to head their academy. But after a few months they asked me to look into bringing more foreign expertise into the club and the senior team. They had been successful in the past, in the Hun Sen Cup, their so-called FA Cup, and had been close to winning the league. So they wanted to see if bringing in foreign expertise would help them move on to the next step. I found Conor [Nestor] for the head coach role, but it was a very difficult first year for us as we transition into a more European style. A lot more statistics and analytical information are shared with the players, and we asked them to play a high-tempo game.

Conor Nestor

I wear a lot of hats, to be honest, because we're a small club and don't have a massive budget nor a big staff. I oversee the media department as well, liasing with the media team on a weekly basis on how we want to promote the club, the finance department, AFC (Asian Football Confederation) licensing, transfers, dealing with agents, supporting the academy. It's a very wide role.

The owner is His Highness Dy Vichea, who has had the club for around six years now. There is a structure under him; with a CEO, myself and the board who deals with the day-to-day operations. He has been fantastic with us, he is incredibly supportive and we're lucky that they have followed our recommendations regarding the direction that we need to take. Sometimes we have to fight him a little bit to get what we want, but he has generally been receptive to our ideas.

Christopher Grant

G: Svay Rieng obviously have a good squad to be able to win the league last year. How many international players are on the roster, and is a lot of money involved in acquiring them?

CG: We have about 10 players who have represented the Cambodia national team, but there are four, five or them who are on the team regularly. Club captain Soeuy Visal is also the Cambodia captain.

There's not much of a transfer market in Cambodia at the moment and most acquisitions done are free transfers. We and some other clubs have paid some money to sign players, but these are very small fees, local and foreign. But in terms of salary, it is a part of Cambodian football that is massively growing in the past years. 

G: Is that (increasing salary) a good thing, or bad for Cambodian football?

CG: I think it's a good thing, because through my six years of being in Cambodia, I find that families in the country do not see football as a good career path for their kids as the salaries are not good. But now players are able to earn more money, they're able to look after their family and have a better life, and this encourages families to allow their kids to play football and choose it as a career path. I think this can only benefit Cambodian football.

G: Can you tell us a bit more about the Cambodian League itself, the calendar, the teams

CG: The first week of the season will be played on the 15th and 16th of February, there will be 13 teams competing this year after one club unfortunately withdrew. It will end in October, along with the Hun Sen Cup.

Support for our club has been growing over the last year. We've had record sales for our jerseys, averaging about 2,000 fans each home game, and we had over 5,000 fans at our league trophy presentation.

The national team get around 50, 60,000 fans in their home games so we do try to tap into these fans to watch the league games. Clubs are now starting to build new stadiums and infrastructure, and as these grow, I'm sure the matches will be more attractive to the fans who will attend on a more regular basis. 

A lot more marketing is done these days for the league and a lot more content is being produced. The games are broadcast on television and streamed live. Hopefully this will attract the fans into attending matches, which in turn will build the atmosphere and attract even more people.  

G: Back on the question of children, does Svay Rieng have a youth academy or youth teams?

CG: We have an U-18 and an U-16 team at the moment, but they're in the early stages and need to be developed further. We also have a football school for grassroots whereby parents pay USD2.50 per week to have their children train for an hour and a half with coaches every week.

G: Are the other Cambodian clubs developing their youth academy as well currently?

CG: It's a growing part of the game in the country. Whereas a few years ago only two, three clubs were doing it, now at least half of the league's clubs are running youth teams. Hopefully it will continue to grow.  

G: And Cambodia junior national teams have in the past year produced some good results. Most recently, the U-23 team edged Malaysia 3-1 in the 2019 SEA Games! What has changed in Cambodia's youth development?

CG: It is due to a combination of things. The Cambodian Federation built a residential-style football academy a few years ago, and have an U-18 and an U-16 teams composed of the best players scouted. These boys train fulltime and go to school together, while a group of them are entered into the Cambodian League as Bati Youth.

Another reason is Félix (Félix Dalmás, Cambodia head coach Felix) and Honda (Keisuke Honda, Cambodia general manager), who have been here for the last year or two, implementing a style of play that encourages the players to be expressive, to play out from the back. The pair has been educating the players on how to be a professional on and off the pitch, how to look after themselves, how to look after their body.

Keisuke Honda

G: Currently, Cambodia is a mid-tier footballing nation in the Southeast Asian region. If the improvements continue, do you see it catching up to the top ones?

CG: That's a fair assessment of where Cambodia is and has been in the past. But if the Cambodian League grows and maintains its course, it's going to go 'boom' in three to five years. They're going to be a lot more successful at the international stage, as do the clubs.

Past results involving Cambodian clubs in the AFC Cup have not been encouraging, but if the improvements continue, investments come in, the pitches are upgraded, I think we will see Cambodia competing at a much higher level.

G: What about you and Svay Rieng? What are your future hopes for the club?

CG: One of the things the head coach and I want to achieve at the club is to build a long-lasting structure of a professional club, from top to bottom, to the medical department, to the stadium. When we leave, we want to leave behind a professionally-organised football club. That's what we want to see happen, that's what we are working on. We want to see it become one of the best football clubs in the country, if not the best; a pioneer in sports science, fitness coaching and facilities. We want to show to other clubs in the country, "this is how to do it".

Later that evening, Svay Rieng capped off their friendly series in Kuala Lumpur by defeating Terengganu 4-3, after coming back from trailing 3-1 at halftime.

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