Southeast Asia Asia

Are Visakha Set to Become ASEAN’s Newest Dark Horses?

Founded in 2016, Visakha FC were virtual unknowns outside of their native Cambodia. However, following two excellent wins against stronger teams in the 2022 AFC Cup, Visakha have attracted the attention of the ASEAN region and should the Blue Horses go far in this season’s AFC Cup, they might attract the attention of Asia as well.

The 2022 AFC Cup was Visakha’s debut in continental competitions, but they’re currently establishing a pedigree for themselves in Cambodia. Promoted to the C-League in 2017, the following year saw Visakha winning bronze in their debut season as a top-flight club. The Phnom Penh-based club’s ascendancy continued to the 2019 season, when Visakha finished runners-up to Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng in that year’s C-League.

Visakha then won their first silverware in the 2020 season, winning that year’s Hun Sen Cup. Normally that would earn Visakha a ticket to the following year’s AFC Cup, however as we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the AFC to scrap the competition’s ASEAN Zone. The Blue Horses were initially set to take on Timor-Leste’s Lalenok United in the qualifying play-offs, however the withdrawals of Myanmar teams Shan United and Hanthawaddy United meant that both Visakha and Lalenok were drawn to Group I alongside Singapore’s Geylang International and Malaysia’s Terengganu FC, prior to the abolishment of that year’s ASEAN Zone.

This continental setback did not deter Visakha, though, and they won their second straight Hun Sen Cup in 2021. The cup triumph meant that Visakha, alongside 2021 C-League champions Phnom Penh Crown, will represent Cambodia in the 2022 AFC Cup. Initially Visaka were drawn to face Laos’ Young Elephants in the qualifying play-offs, but once again both Shan United and Hanthawaddy United had to withdraw from the AFC Cup due to the political chaos happening in Myanmar. Just like in 2021, Visakha were handed a free ticket to the group stages.

The Blue Horses were drawn into a tough Group G, alongside Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines, Malaysian side Kedah Darul Aman, and Indonesian champions Bali United. The group’s games will be played in a centralized venue, Bali United’s Kapten I Wayan Dipta Stadium.

Many immediately wrote Visakha off as Cambodian teams didn’t exactly have the best track record in the AFC Cup, however, in their first ever continental match against Kaya on June 24th, Visakha managed to pull off a shock that stunned ASEAN football.

To put the scale of Visakha’s win over Kaya into context, the Filipino side had participated in the AFC Champions League play-off in the same season and even went through to the ACL group stages the previous year. Granted, Kaya’s qualification was aided by Chinese teams fielding their youths and the withdrawal of a number of teams due to the pandemic, however it should be stressed that Kaya have a continental pedigree to their name.

The Mighty Kaya were veterans to the AFC Cup, playing in the tournament four times and facing-off against the region’s elite such as Johor Darul Ta’zim, Tampines Rovers, PSM Makassar, and Home United (now Lion City Sailors). By contrast, 2022 was, as stated before, Visakha’s first foray into continental competitions.

Initially the script ran normally in Kaya’s favor, the Filipinos having taken the lead in the 30th minute thanks to Arnel Amita’s header. However, in the second half, normalcy was torn into shreds after Ken Chansopheak equalized in the 47th minute, before a Sa Ty stunner gave Visakha the lead in the 59th minute. The Blue Horses managed to successfully saw out their advantage and ended the game as 2-1 winners.

But if skeptics thought that Visakha’s win against Kaya was a mere fluke, their second group stage game against hosts Bali United on June 27th proved that the Blue Horses meant business.

Backed by their home supporters, Bali United took the lead in the 9th minute thanks to Irfan Jaya. However, Paulo Victor managed to cancel out the Serdadu Tridatu‘s advantage in the 17th minute after he had outjumped Willian Pacheco for the ball, before Visakha shockingly took the lead on the stroke of half-time by virtue of another stunning long-ranged goal, this time a free-kick from Ouk Sovann.

The second half saw Visakha running riot, clearly taking advantage of a Bali United side filled with aging legs and still tired from a combination of their participation in the 2022 Piala Presiden as well as their intense, high-octane win against Kedah three days prior.

With a team comprised of young, energized talent, Visakha ran Bali United ragged, with Lee Jae-gun making it 3-1 in the 55th minute before Victor placed the game beyond Bali United’s reach with his brace in the 63rd minute. Former C-League top-scorer Jean Befolo Mbarga gave the Serdadu Tridatu a glimmer of hope with a short-ranged finish in the 85th minute, before Sovann completed the humiliation with a brace of his own three minutes later.

The final score reads, Visakha 5-2 Bali United.

Six points from two games. Nobody could have foreseen that Visakha had managed to pull this off, especially considering that they’re surrounded by regional heavyweights Kaya, Bali United, and Kedah. A win for the Blue Horses against Kedah in their final group stage match on June 30th would ensure that Visakha had done something that their country’s heavyweights in Phnom Penh Crown, Svay Rieng, Nagaworld FC, and Boeung Ket Angkor had never done before – qualifying into the ASEAN knockouts.

It’s only in 2019 that Cambodian football had to endure one of its most humiliating episodes in the AFC Cup after Nagaworld succumbed to a heavy 10-0 defeat away at Hanoi FC. The Dragons were the punching bag of their group that year, also losing 5-1 to Tampines before being beaten 5-1 again by Hanoi in Phnom Penh.

However, slowly but surely, Cambodian football have grown exponentially. Following Keisuke Honda’s appointment as manager of the Cambodia national team, the management of the country’s league fell into the hands of Satoshi Saito, another Japanese who had once worked as an international marketer for Spanish giants FC Barcelona.

Underneath Saito’s guidance, the league was revamped from the C-League to the Cambodian Premier League, which saw the league being reduced into eight teams for the 2022 season – basically retaining only the league’s top half and relegating the bottom half to the second-tier. Visakha was part of that top eight, alongside the aforementioned traditional giants as well as Tiffy Army, ambitious upstarts Angkor Tiger, and last season’s surprise packages Kirivong Sok Sen Chey.

The CPL’s advent saw the rise of a fully professional league akin to that of the Thai League 1 and the Singapore Premier League, which hopefully would elevate Cambodia’s status within both ASEAN and Asia. The reduction of teams saw an improvement of quality within the CPL’s matches, as teams from the top half often beat teams in the bottom half by heavy scorelines during the C-League era. The league’s regulation that require teams to play at least two U-23 players at all times is also projected to aid in Cambodia’s youth development.

This was evident in Visakha’s own squad. The aforementioned Chansopheak, Ty, and Sovann, who played key roles in wins against Kaya and Bali United, were under the age of 25 and all of them have been included in the Cambodia senior national team setup. The likes of Keo Soksela, Teath Kimheng, Cheng Meng, and In Sodavid, also key players in Visakha’s AFC run so far, were also under the age of 25 and also pivotal members of the Cambodia senior national team.

Even Jae-gun, Visakha’s South Korean striker, was entering the early stages of his career’s prime at 25.

But of course, these young talents need people with plenty of experience in the pitch to guide them and this is where Visakha’s other members of their foreign contingent play their role. Victor and fellow Brazilian Marcos Vinicius were 27 years old, while South African defender Mohammed Khan was 29. And there’s also Thierry Chantha Bin, Visakha’s 31-year old vice-captain who had amassed experienced in teams outside Cambodia such as Krabi FC, Terengganu, Sukhothai FC, and Perak FC, and 30-year old captain Keo Sokpheng, who had experienced Malaysian football with PKNP FC back in 2018 and had represented the giants of Cambodian football in Boeung Ket and Phnom Penh Crown.

This perfect balance of youth and experience, as well as their “nothing-to-lose” attitude – remember, people had written Visakha off since day one – meant that the Blue Horses were able to play games without pressure, enabling them to bring out the best of their talents on the pitch.

And with only one more win, three more points, Visakha are on the verge of creating new frontiers for Cambodian football, placing the nation well in the regional footballing map in the process.