Japanese-born mid-fielder Yudai Ogawa has become the first naturalised Cambodian citizen to play for the national football team.

He has been residing and playing professionally in the Kingdom for five years. Under the terms established by FIFA in 2008, anyone who has resided in a country or territory for at least five years since the age of 18 is eligible for selection.

Former national assistant coach Phea Sopheaktra said the idea of selecting foreign-born players for the national team was first mooted by former general manager of team Cambodia, retired Japanese star Keisuke Honda.

“Ogawa’s decision to join the national team came as a surprise. It marks a turning point in the football scene in Cambodia. That being said, Honda’s working group discussed the possibility in the past,” he noted.

He explained that Honda had paid close attention to the foreign players who plied their trade in the Kingdom. He thought highly of Ogawa in particular, as his style of play fitted in well with the Cambodian national team. Honda liked players who were strong defensively, so they needed to be tall and blessed with a strong physique. They should be effective dribblers of the ball and be able to retain passion of the ball.

“During Honda’s tenure, we had detailed discussions about recruiting several foreign players. Ogawa, defenders Khan Mohammed Faez and Zogbe Gbayoro Anderson and striker Privat were all under consideration, as they have all played in Cambodian leagues for a long time,” he added.

He said the discussions originally took place around the conclusion of the SEA Games in late 2022 in Vietnam, with a view to introducing the new players ahead of the 2023 games, which Cambodia hosted. Unfortunately, at the time, none of the players under consideration had quite reached the five year threshold required by FIFA.

Despite Honda’s departure from the national team management structure, it was evident that the process of securing players had continued, when current head coach Felix Dalmas selected Ogawa on October 6.

After renouncing his Japanese citizenship to obtain a Cambodian passport, Ogawa explained that he had carefully considered his decision.

“I became aware of the possibility of becoming a Khmer citizen and playing on behalf of Cambodia about a month ago. I decided promptly, as I understand the FIFA rule very clearly,” he said.

“The decision may seem like a complex one, but I don’t regret it. I intend to play for the Cambodian national team because of my love for the Kingdom. I had already discussed this with my mother and father,” he added.

Ogawa is training hard with the national team, in preparation for the FIFA World Cup 2026 Preliminary Joint Qualifications. The first leg of their elimination round against Pakistan will take place at the National Olympic Stadium on October 12, with the return match scheduled for October 17, on Pakistani soil.

“I am very happy to be training alongside my Cambodian teammates. I was so excited when the coach called me. It made me very happy. I have been living here for five years, and have learned a lot about Khmer culture. I really like it,” he said.

“This weekend’s match is a huge occasion for the Kingdom, so I am training hard every day. I need to learn more about the way our team – and all of the players – want to play. I will do my best for this vital competition,” he added.