Food, weather, religion and more – The issues coaches face in SEA

Steve Darby and Bojan Hodak have experienced it all as coaches in Southeast Asia. As part of this year's look at FFT's Top 15 ASEAN Managers, both men explained some of the unique issues coaches can face in this region...

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From Laos to Singapore, Vietnam to Australia, Timor to the Philippines and all points in between, coaches come to work in Southeast Asia not knowing if what works in one club or city will in another, let alone from nation to nation.

The challenge, whether for local or foreign coaches, is to adjust, reshape or in some cases completely overhaul what has worked before in adapting to their new surroundings.

In Cambodia beer is cheap and I didn’t know when I first arrived that the players were spending their nights drinking

It’s not as simple as working out the technical abilities of the squad or which kind of tactical approach to use. It often stretches all the way to food, religion, lifestyle and cultural choices and frequently how to communicate with players, staff and board members alike.

It’s almost always unique too and therein lies one of the major challenges for coaches working out of their home confines and when you factor in the standard impatience of clubs across the region, the failure to adapt is a major reason so many fail in short periods of time.

FourFourTwo spoke to two men who have worked extensively across the region – and beyond – to get a sense of just how they had to adapt in their travels across Southeast Asia.

Some of the responses are illuminating for the struggles they and others have had to endure – from lightning strikes, to players training with a hangover and strange management requests.

English-born Steve Darby has held club and national roles in no fewer than six Southeast Asian nations (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore and Australia) as well as working in the Middle East and India and is uniquely qualified to share his insights.

That applies equally to Croatian Bojan Hodak, the current Malaysian under-19 coach who has also held club posts in Malaysia and Cambodia as well as further afield in China.

Here are their thoughts on how to deal with a range of issues coaches commonly face working throughout Southeast Asia.

Hodak during his time with JDT


BOJAN HODAK: “Most foreign coaches who come to Southeast Asia have a lot of trouble (knowing) what to do with the players and the food that they eat.

“They want the players to eat the same kind of foods that they did in Europe or wherever but in 99 per cent of cases it’s impossible and the one thing I always say is that you can’t touch certain foods.

The principles still apply to coaching in general and that’s to treat people as people first and players second

“When I was at Kelantan I had a fitness coach from Croatia and he wanted the players to eat certain kinds of foods but I told him whatever you do, don’t touch the spices!

“You can find ways to get them the protein or the carbohydrates they need but you can’t force things on them or take certain things away – you try giving the players a jacket potato that they’ve maybe never seen in their life and they’ll die!”

STEVE DARBY: “It’s pointless trying to enforce a western diet on Southeast Asian players because they won’t change and in many cases you’re dealing with the wrong person.

“It’s the wife or the mother that usually cooks or otherwise the players will just buy street food, so you just have to be sensible in how you adapt to that.”


BH on drinking: “It’s not a problem in some countries like Malaysia but in others alcohol is certainly an issue.

“In Cambodia beer is cheap and I didn’t know when I first arrived that the players were spending their nights drinking so I had to sit down with management and explain to them why it was bad for them and we soon fixed the issue.”

BH on smoking: “In Malaysia often the issue is with players smoking but I have to take a certain approach with that and it’s also about education.

“I can’t simply ban or prevent the players from doing something at home, but you can explain the impact it has and you can make sure that they don’t smoke around the club or in the dressing rooms or in front of me but at home, that’s their choice.”

SD on strange requests: “To an extent you can say the nations are different but the principles still apply to coaching in general and that’s to treat people as people first and players second.

“Of course, that has to be adapted in some ways in some countries because there will be a lot of things that you’ll see along the way … I remember in Malaysia I once had the club captain come up to me and tell me he couldn’t train because he had to take his mother shopping; it wasn’t a choice it was just he was telling me what was happening – and this was a national team player.”

SD on match fixing: “In Laos it got to the point where you had to check and be aware before games of match fixing.

“I was warned about potential fixers and you had to consider whether or not to play those players, but sometimes it was so hard to tell because they would appear to be doing their best and not letting you down and if you have no proof then you need to play them.

“But the gossip and rumour about match fixing can definitely affect your preparation.”

[UP NEXT: Lightning, thunder and managing the media]