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Dec 24, 2008

Low profile, high ambition

Scott O'Donell is the best - and most qualified - football coach that you've probably never heard of.

Four years ago, he became the first Australian to coach a foreign men's national team - Cambodia - and for the past 12 months he's been supervising the training of dozens of coaches as part of his director's role with the Asian Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur.

He's also a former coach of the year from Singapore's S-League - at Geylang United in 2003 - and holds the AFC 'A' certificate as well as his national coaching license from Australia.

And, yet, as O'Donell prepares to cut short his stay with the AFC to spend more time with his young family in Cambodia, the 41-year-old admits that he's not sure where his next gig will come from.

Jobs are so scarce in Australia's A-League that O'Donell, a solid but unglamorous defender in the old National Soccer League (NSL) in the late 1980s and 1990s, knows that he'll have only an outside chance of competing with the growing number of high-profile ex-Socceroos entering the managerial ranks.

''Obviously being away for so long doesn't help when it comes to trying to get work back home,'' he said.''But now that Australia is part of Asia, I think I have a big advantage when it comes to knowledge of Asian football.''

O'Donell originally hails from Sydney's northern districts and played under former Socceroo coaches Rale Rasic and Raul Blanco for Parramatta Melita in the NSL. He also had stints with clubs in Malaysia and Singapore but doesn't have the star appeal of a Kosmina, Farina or Okon. It's hard enough to get people not to misspell his last name; Wikipedia lists it incorrectly as the more common 'O'Donnell'. (He's no relation to the former Australian cricketer, Simon O'Donnell).

He's better known across Asia than in his homeland, thanks to spending much of this decade as a guest football pundit and commentator for regional network, ESPN/STAR Sports, based in his former home of Singapore.

O'Donell has often been a pundit on ESPN's popular English Premier League coverage, but it was when the Socceroos qualified for their first World Cup finals in 32 years that we worked together in November 2005. He joined me as an analyst on ESPN's SportsCenter Asia when Australia dramatically booked a placed in Germany after beating Uruguay on penalties at Sydney's Olympic stadium, just a couple of miles from the suburb of Ermington where he grew up.

O'Donell admits that his profile as a TV talking head probably helped him land his first coaching job at Geylang United in 2003.

''The club gave me a chance when I was unproven, granting me full control of the football side of things,'' he said.''I would like to think I repaid them in the first couple of years by being runners-up in the league and cup despite a smaller budget than other clubs.''

His tough discipline and almost brutal physical fitness drills quickly earned O'Donell a reputation in the S-League. He considers helping Geylang become the first Singaporean side to make the semi-finals of the 2004 AFC Cup - losing 2-1 on aggregate to Syria's Al Wahda - to be his greatest achievement.

''Scott has a very uncomplicated philosophy,'' his former Geylang goalkeeping coach, Dez Corkhill, said.''You're either with him or against him. If you're with him, he'll back you in any situation.''

In 2005, O'Donell took on one of the most challenging jobs in world football, becoming the head coach of Cambodia, currently FIFA ranking 178 out of 201.

In a turbulent two-and-a-half years in charge, O'Donell witnessed moments of success, including helping Cambodia's under-23 side earn a surprise 2-2 draw with Singapore in 2007, but also strange episodes like when the nation's Prince made the late decision to replace the national side with his own club team for the 2005 Southeast Asian Games.

O'Donell discovered that doing the little things right went a long way to building team harmony in this emerging nation.

''At the start, the boys just turned up when they wanted to,'' he said.''It wasn't their fault… they were just doing what they'd always done. But after a while, with the help of the Cambodian federation who were able to find some extra money, we were able to provide financial incentives for the players to get to training on time and wear the right kit and so on.''

In the end, after a sponsor dropped out, Cambodian football officials ran out of money and O'Donell left his post at the end of 2007.

His wife, Margaret, and adopted daughters Emma (10) and Ellie (9) still live in Phnom Penh where the girls go to the British International School. The O'Donells adopted Cambodian-born Emma and Ellie when they were babies although they both now speak with unmistakable Aussie accents.

Catching up over a plate of seafood Char Kway Teow at a restaurant near the AFC's Kuala Lumpur headquarters, O'Donell spoke of his colourful and varied footballing journey through Asia and the lessons learnt from his role as AFC Director of Coach Education.

''One of my jobs is managing the confederation's Project Future which identifies young potential elite coaches across Asia and tries to develop them,'' he said.

''It's not until you work with coaches from places like Iraq or Bhutan that you realise the obstacles and sacrifices that local officials and players have to overcome.''

At the other end of the spectrum, O'Donell rubbed shoulders in 2008 with Europe's top managers at the UEFA National Coaches Conference in Vienna and some of the best football brains from around the world at the FIFA Instructors' Conference in Madrid.

He's planning to leave Kuala Lumpur early in 2009 but would like to serve as a consultant after building a close working relationship with AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam.

He's hopeful that his international experience, particularly in Asia, might catch the attention of A-League football directors as Australia's championship expands to a 12-team competition by 2010. Given his knowledge of the region and the extra riches now available in the AFC Champions League, O'Donell would be a more than capable coach.

As long ago as 1999, he studied with current A-League managers Frank Farina and David Mitchell in the second intake of candidates as he completed his national coaching licence in Australia.

''I wasn't surprised a couple of years ago when Indonesia's Persik Kediri beat Sydney FC in the AFC Champions League yet no-one contacted me to get information about them even though I'd coached against them,'' he said.

''I think it is vitally important that Australia starts to make some good contacts in Asia so teams can be well prepared. I don't think that has been the case so far. I do think some people in Australia are still under-estimating the level of football in Asia.''

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