Asian Football Interviews

Breaking Barriers: A chat with Seut Baraing, one of Cambodia’s finest

Height has been a factor for some, if not many managers, when they select their players. Often, managers want tall, commandeering defenders who can win aerial battles and towering forwards who can easily head in goals. Thus, many shorter footballers often get overlooked because of their height. Take for example Angel Gomes at Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjær chose not to field the attacking midfielder because he wasn’t tall enough and, hence, could be easily bullied by the physical nature of the league.

However, some of the world’s best footballers are by no means the tallest. The late Diego Maradona stood at 1.65m. Alejandro “Papu” Gómez is also 1.65m tall, while Lionel Messi stands at 1.7m. Angel Gomes himself has done relatively well at Portuguese top flight side Boavista, where he is currently on loan at from Lille OSC.

Seut Baraing may be an unfamiliar name to most, but he is one other player that falls into this category of short but immensely talented footballers. Never let his 1.6m height fool you. The right-back has a ton of pace, stamina, and physicality. He has a remarkable ability to run down the flanks to support attacking plays and easily sprints back to fulfill his defensive responsibilities. The 21-year-old is part of a new generation of technically gifted Cambodian footballers, and it is my honour to share his story.

Siem Reap Born and Bred

Seut Baraing was born in Siem Reap and started playing football “properly” when he was at Srah Soang High School. Before that, Baraing developed the love for the beautiful game in the open grounds outside his village temple. Back then, his peers and him could only play football bare foot, and this continued all the way until he was in high school.

However, while Baraing was crazy about football, his family was not (at first).

“Every time I try to go and play football, my family doesn’t let me. 11 years ago, football in Cambodia was not like how [developed] it is now. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. I would go every evening to play football outside the temple grounds and I would come back home late [at night]. They would tell me to focus on my studies instead.”

During the intitial year at Srah Soang High, Baraing could not was not allowed to play football because his mother had informed the school football team coach that she forbade him from playing. Yet a determined Baraing wasn’t going to let his mother stand in the way of his dreams. A year later, his passion for the game was overwhelming and he approached the football coach, who was impressed by his desire and got him a spot on the team.

In 2009, Baraing would go on to represent his school in the Siem Reap provincial tournament, which Srah Soang High finished as runners-up. Despite narrowly losing in the final, their second placed finish meant that they were eligible to represent Sieam Reap alongside the champion school in the Government Cup that was held at Phnom Penh. Up till that point, Baraing had been playing barefoot, but the government cup required the footballers to play with boots.

“They took all the first and second placed teams from each province to play in the Government Cup. When we went to Phnom Penh was when we started to wear boots. It was the first-time wearing boots for me. It was funny because all of us were wearing boots for the first time and I was one of the few players who could really kick far with the boots on. We were not used to it.”

The Phnom Penh Crown Adventure

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

It was about this time when Phnom Penh Crown started to invest their resources in building an academy for footballers. There wasn’t much done by professional clubs for internal youth development before this, and the club were trailblazers in this regard. The club had two trials – one trial in each province to shortlist promising candidates and another one for shortlisted candidates at Phnom Penh to trim the squad to form a U-13 team.

“The trials happened in 2010. I was the only one from Siem Reap who made it to the second round of trials in Phnom Penh. I remember them calling all the schools in Siem Reap to send footballers for the trial. A few months later, I went to the second trial at Phnom Penh and I managed to impress enough to get selected for the Phnom Penh U-13 team.”

While it was a joyous occasion for Baraing, it was somewhat bitter sweet because he had to reside to Phnom Penh alone and stay far away from his family. Unlike most of his new teammates, he had been the only one from Siem Reap, which made him feel a tad bit isolated at first. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before he became well acquainted with his peers. Life at Phnom Penh was really good for Baraing, as the club took care of his accommodations, food, and even sent him to one of the best international schools in the city.

A few months after joining the academy, along with 10 of his teammates, Baraing came to Singapore to participate in the Soccer Sixes 2012 tournament held by the Singapore Cricket Club. It was the first time Baraing had left the country, and he had always dreamt of flying.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

“Before Phnom Penh Crown, I never thought that I could fly. I have always dreamed of flying and getting on an airplane but I didn’t think it was possible. When I went to the academy, this dream then became [a reality]. We spent 5 days in Singapore and we played against a team from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Singapore was the first country I traveled to outside of Cambodia and I love it so much. Until now, I love Singapore. I even came here for holiday a few years ago.”

Returning to Cambodia, Baraing was called up to represent the Cambodian National Under-13 team in a tournament in Malaysia. For the next few years, international travel would be a common theme for the footballer.

“Because [I wanted to pursue] my footballing dreams, I [was forced to] stay far from my family. Phnom Penh Crown built the first academy in Cambodia with the aim of challenging other countries and not just being the best in Cambodia. We have gone to Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, and so many other countries to improve the standard of football. It wasn’t just the academy but the national team as well. I rose up the ranks of the various youth levels and also had the chance to play at a lot of places as well.

“Before I left for Phnom Penh Crown, my father asked me if I was serious abut playing football. He told me to go there and not to just have fun and return. He said I needed to go all out and become successful. I told him that I really wanted to go and show him that I can do it.”

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

And Baraing did show his father. It was under head coach Sam Schweingruber in 2016 that Baraing had his big break. Schweingruber wanted to blood in more academy prospects into the team and called Baraing up for first team training in 2015. While he had impressed during training, the Cambodian footballing authorities would not allow Phnom Penh Crown to field a 15-year-old Baraing because they felt he was too young and therefore needed protection.

“So, I could only train with the first team but I cannot play for the league. I was too young according to them. I remembered the rule where they did not allow very young players. In 2016, when I was 17 years old, I managed to make my first team debut.”

Baraing would go onto cement his position in the Phnom Penh Crown team, and Anthony Aymard mentioned how he was blown away by his technical ability.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

In 2017, then Cambodian National Team manager, Lee Tae Hoon, handed Baraing his debut for the Cambodian National Team. His first start came against a titan of Asian football, Saudi Arabia. Even though Cambodia lost against Saudi Arabia, it was a day to remember for the left-back. Lee would soon be replaced by Leonardo Vitorino, who continued to call up Baraing for the national team. Under the Brazilian, Baraing faced Jordan and India. Featuring regularly in the national team is one goal that the left-back has in mind, and he is continuously looking for ways to better himself so that he can cement his position.

Coping with His Height

As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to know how Baraing adapted to his lack of height while he plays.

“I cannot stay close with taller attackers when the opponents play the long ball. I cannot jump and challenge for the ball with them because of their height. So, I learned to play more intelligently. I wait for them to make their first touch and then the second touch I’ll come in to take the ball from them and I go. A few days a week, I always do extra training to work on my other areas. It is very important to look for the overlap and play the ball when. I also work a lot on my speed so I work a lot on my fitness.”

Baraing grew up idolizing Marcelo, and he always tried to analyze the way the Brazilian moved. The Cambodian International is an aggressive player who is never afraid of making challenges. He works on the other areas of his game and, in some ways, his relative shortness has also made him a more intelligent footballer.

Returning Home with Angkor Tigers and Future Aspirations

After 4 years with Phnom Penh Crown, Baraing made a surprise move to Angkor Tigers for a season-long loan. Since leaving home in 2010 to join the Phnom Penh academy, Baraing had never spent an extended period of time with his family and felt like he needed to do so after so long. Thankfully, both clubs agreed on terms for a season-long loan but family was not the only factor that convinced Baraing to link up with Angkor Tigers.

Photo Credits: Angkor Tiger FC

Besides having the desire to play a team from his native Siem Reap, it was the close friendship he shared with head coach Oriol Mohedano at Phnom Penh Crown that spurred him to agree with the deal. Oriol took over as Angkor Tigers head coach after leaving Phnom Penh Crown and has remained there since 2017.

“Every year when I come to Siem Reap, coach Oriol would ask me when I will come and play for the Tigers. He would always ask me when I will play for the team in my province. I think it is nice that I was born in Siem Reap and I can play for a team in Siem Reap. That being said, whatever I had came from Phnom Penh Crown. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In his short but eventful career thus far, Baraing has already fulfilled most of his goals but one still remains elusive.

“I have three dreams and two I have already fulfilled. First, I want to play for Phnom Penh Crown. Second, I wanted to play for the national team. Third, I want to play overseas. The third dream is not yet fulfilled but every day I work hard and try my best to fulfil the last one.”

I wanted to share Baraing’s story to partly shed more light on football in Cambodia but also highlight that shorter footballers need not be overlooked because of their height. Of course, some managers would want to play a team of tall imposing footballers because it suits their system better. However, I think it is important for members of the football fraternity to be open to any possibility.

One thing is for certain though, expect to see some moments of magic from Baraing this upcoming season. Who knows, he might just secure a move overseas.

Featured Image credits: Angkor Tigers FC

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