Asian Football

A Step In The Right Direction? A Review Of The 2022 Cambodian Premier League

The Cambodian Premier League (CPL) kicked off on March 5th earlier this year and it surely has been a roller-coaster of an experience, especially since there have been some major changes by the Cambodian Football League Company (CFLC), helmed by Satoshi Saito. In October last year, it was announced that Saito’s CFLC would take over the administrative and financial duties of the Metfone C-League for the 2022 campaign.

Back then, I was surprised by the announcement. There had been rumours circling within the Singapore football fraternity that the league was going to be privatized in the near future. Yet, the privatization of topflight Cambodian football in 2022 and the lack of privatization in Singapore made me wonder if we were seriously lagging behind. Yet, miracles do not happen overnight, and while it has been a good few months of CPL action, only time will only tell how successful Cambodia’s privatized top flight league will be in the long run.

Nevertheless, I think a review of sorts is certainly in order but first, what changes have taken place since last year’s Metfone C-League?

Thanks to Gareth Johnson, we have a clearer understanding.

For starters, the CFLC reduced the number of teams in the CPL. 13 teams competed in the Metfone C-League but only 8 were chosen to compete in the new top flight league at the start of the year. The reduced number of teams certainly increases the quality of competition as the top 8 Cambodian sides go toe-to-toe every week. Every game week has at least one mouthwatering clash, and the quality of football on display has certainly improved.

The remaining 5 sides were demoted to the newly formed second division, Cambodia League 2 (CL2). These sides are by no means weak outfits and they have certainly added quality to a previously lacklustre second tier. However, promotion to the CPL is not guaranteed, and CL2 sides need to meet certain club licensing requirements should they qualify for promotion to the CPL.

Most importantly, the CFLC has implemented a U-22 rule where two U-23 players are required to be in the starting XI. This initiative ties in with two strategic interests. Firstly, and more immediately, Cambodia aspires to win Gold in next year’s SEA Games tournament, held in Phnom Penh. Making it mandatory for clubs to feature at least two U-22 players guarantees game time for younger players and ensures that the national team pool is injected with fresh faces. Secondly, it demonstrates that the CFLC is keen on developing the next generation of Cambodian stalwarts. Whether this rule will continue in the seasons to come remains to be seen, and there are rumours that it might be scrapped for the 2023 edition of the CPL.

It’s safe to say that there has been a largely positive response to these changes by various stakeholders of the Cambodian Premier League.

The Reduction In Teams

Image Credits: Kirivong Sok Sen Chey FC

“This is a transition year for Cambodian football,” explains Florian Baudrit, the General Manager of Kirivong Sok Sen Chey FC, “Cambodia’s presence on the football map is indeed rising and Cambodian football is becoming more professional with added structure and club licensing requirements at the CPL level in line with AFC Licensing ones. Have the changes worked? I think so, to a certain extent. It certainly has when it comes to raising the levels of competitiveness and increasing audience numbers.”

Florian was quick to point out how one only needs to look at the attendance figures to realize how interest has sky-rocketed this season. Angkor Tiger’s home fixture against Boeung Ket saw nearly 5,000 people in attendance for a league game – something that has not happened before. Likewise, Kirivong had 1,000 people in their home game against Visakha recently as well – small milestones for teams that indicate the interest in the local game is only growing.

“Obviously, at the top flight level, this level of competitiveness was not born solely because of the reforms and has existed long before during the Metfone C-League days,” explains Florian. “However, the reforms have helped nudged the league and clubs in the right direction and have pushed the level of competition to the next tier. Even at CL2, we witness the entrance of many teams from the countryside (provinces), which help creates a vibrant second division.”

Image Credits: Angkor Tiger

Likewise, newcomer Alistair Heath believes that the quality of football has altogether improved possibly because of the reduction in teams.

“This may be my first season in charge in the Cambodian top flight but ​I have done my research prior to signing the contract with Angkor Tiger,” shares the 37-year-old. “I have watched several Metfone C-League games as part of my preparations for this campaign and reflecting now, this league is more competitive than last year. Clubs have brought in better quality foreigners, which has only boosted the calibre of the competition.

“Perhaps, it may be a tad bit repetitive to play the same 7 teams for three rounds but overall, the level of football is good. In fact, given my background with Thai football, I would make a bold statement that CPL sides are on par with most Thai League 2 teams.”

Former Tiger boss Oriol Mohedano has mixed feelings about the reduction in the number of top-flight teams.

“Eight teams is too little,” explains the Spaniard. “The goal of any professional league is to have a lot of teams with every club having extremely developed structures. Obviously, we cannot launch a project like this from the get-go. As such, for now, having eight teams is fine but in the long run, more teams need to be added to the league. It is challenging to play the same opponents three to five times (depending if you’re in the top 4) and we need more vibrancy in the grand scheme of things.”

Having managed in the league since 2017, Oriol does miss the different styles of play that the various teams possessed during the Metfone C-League era when there were 13 teams in the Cambodian top flight.

(Oriol in the middle) Image Credits: Tiffy Army

Would this change next year? Rumours are circulating that the number of teams will be increased to 10 for the 2023 campaign. Whether this materializes remains to be seen.

The U-22 Rule

The U-22 rule has been a big headache for many teams this year as the rule impairs the ability of most coaches to select their strongest line-ups.

“I do not fully support this idea,” shares Phnom Penh Crown Head Coach Oleg Starynskyi. “Football is entertainment at its core and teams need to play with the strongest squads. The U-22 rule lowers the quality of the game as per the rules, you must have two U-23 players on the pitch. This rule also dampens the competitive spirit of the game because there are instances when coaches have to drop players that are much better and have been performing well. Even though such players are more deserving of a spot on the starting XI, coaches are forced to play younger players.”

If the CPL continues to forge ahead with this rule without adjustments, Oleg believes this may create a generation of “soft players,” who expect to play as opposed to fighting for their place in the team.

“This rule also may kill careers of certain players,” adds the Ukrainian. “Once they have passed the U-22 age limit, it may prove more difficult to feature in the team and they may have to then step aside for younger players. This will only lead to frustration, a damaged team environment, and eventually a depressive state of affairs. We need football to be more exciting for the masses and right now, if things don’t change, we may lose more spectators and viewers in the long run because we can’t put our best football on display.”

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown

Oriol shares similar sentiments with Oleg on this matter. Instead, he believes that if the aim is to really blood in younger players, the league perhaps needs to adopt unorthodox and unique solutions.

“While I disagree with the rule, I am not against the principle of playing young squads. Yet, imposing a certain number of U-22 players that have to play is limiting the potential of a squad. Perhaps, instead, the league could look at other elements such as the average age of the starting XI or the minimum number of minutes played by U-22 players. More importantly, there needs to exist a structured Cambodian U-21 League which will help facilitate proper development of the next generation of footballers as they transition from U-18 to first-team football.”

A New Chapter that Builds From Previous Development

As Oriol rightly points out (and something that Florian alluded to as well), the CPL is in many ways the culmination of years of development during the Metfone C-League era. For the CPL to truly build from the foundations crafted in previous years, it needs to enact forward-thinking policies that help to raise the competitiveness of Cambodian football while also implementing reforms to boost the marketability of the league.

The league should seriously consider following in Thailand and Malaysia’s footsteps and implementing an ASEAN quota to attract some of the best talents in the region. Angkor Tiger have already brought in The Pride of East Timor Mouzinho Barreto. Likewise, Kirivong have Brazilian-Timorese player Thiago Fernandes and previously had Philippine international OJ Porteria till the mid-season window. The CPL is certainly a step up from the Laotian, Timorese and Bruneian leagues. Furthermore, it could be a viable destination for Singaporean footballers who have mostly struggled to break into the Thai and Malaysian markets.

Only time will tell but as things stand, the CPL and, by extension, Cambodian football is on the rise.

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