Cambodia may have been down on their luck in the early years of the world rankings, but as unlikely as it may sound they were actually a former power of the Asian game in the 1960s and early 1970s. Admittedly, that’s not a startling claim to fame in global terms, but nonetheless the national team of the Khmer Republic, as Cambodia was previously known, enjoyed a period of relative success during that era. Having been exposed to the game in the early twentieth century, much earlier than many other Asian nations – a ‘benefit’ of their French colonial past – football in Cambodia gradually gained popularity. Consequently, when many other countries in the region were still only taking up the game, Cambodian football was well organised and reached its peak with a fourth place finish in the 1972 Asian Cup. Unfortunately for them there were no world rankings in those halcyon days to record and reflect this success.
But as civil war and the overspill from the Vietnam conflict segued into the brutal realities of the Khmèr Rouge regime under Pol Pot, football understandably became utterly unimportant. All football development was set back to zero as the country and its people were changed forever. It wasn’t until the 1990s when Cambodia would fully rejoin the football world as the long road to ruin and recovery meant that the national team didn’t play between 1974 and 1995. Once that comeback occurred, in the multi-sport South East Asian Games in December 1995, the tradition of footballing ability and relative regional excellence was long gone. What remained was a team of players who had grown up with greater worries than honing their skills with a ball. The net result when Cambodia appeared on the world rankings for the first time? A stint as the world’s worst.
That South East Asian Games campaign went understandably badly. At least things improved after their opening 10-0 defeat to Indonesia though. They lost their next match by the relatively close score-line of 4-0 to their neighbours Vietnam, before swiftly reverting to type with two 9-0 thrashings inflicted by Malaysia and Thailand. Back in the footballing fold they may have been, but they were understandably out of their depth.
Just nine months later they were back in action in the inaugural ASEAN Tiger Cup held in Singapore; a tournament for nations belonging to the ASEAN Football Federation in South East Asia. In their four group matches, the margins of defeat may have been less than the year before, but the results were the same. Four defeats out of four. At least they scored a goal this time, just the one in a 3-1 defeat to Vietnam. They also succumbed to just a narrow 1-0 loss to Laos in their final match as the two neighbouring countries battled it out to avoid their group’s wooden spoon.
Cambodia may have claimed that dubious honour, but under the ranking system at the time, their narrow defeats had enabled them to accrue sufficient ranking points to climb from the foot of the world rankings. Nowadays a team would need to win or draw to climb the table, but back then points could be earned even in defeat, depending on the strength of the opponent. Cambodia may have been beaten again but they were at last on the rise. To date they have yet to sink so low again.