Melville United Football Academy product Aarun Lim says his call-up to the Cambodian U-22 national team is a dream come true.

And the 18-year-old has paid tribute to the significant foundation Melville’s year-round academy programme – and learning the finer points of the game on the back pitches at Gower Park – gave him in ultimately breaking into the ranks of professional and international football.

Lim has been selected in the final squad for the qualifying round of the 2022 AFC Under-22 Asian Cup from 23 to 28 October with Cambodia placed in a group with the hosts Japan and Hong Kong. He is also one of 36 players currently in Bahrain training alongside the senior national team as they prepare for a pair of qualifying matches against Guam for a place at the 2023 Asian Cup.

Although not formally part of the senior squad, there is a high-level of crossover with players under the guidance of Lim’s boyhood hero, Japan’s Keisuke Honda, who is general manager of the Cambodian national team.

Lim left Hamilton for Cambodia in September 2020 with his sights set on the Asian Football Confederation U-19 Championship in Uzbekistan, which was rescheduled for early 2021 then eventually cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then despite agreeing terms for his first professional contract with Boeung Ket FC in December 2020, Lim had to wait another nine months to make his professional debut thanks to a combination of injury, administration, and transfer windows.

Finally, in September Lim made his debut with a 12-minute appearance off the bench in the top-flight Cambodian League (Metfone Cambodia League) although he doesn’t remember much of it.

“It was amazing, but a blur at the same time,” he said. “I had to watch the highlights back to take it all in.”

The appearance was enough to gain the attention of Honda – an admirer of football in New Zealand based on the recent performances of the U-23 side at the Olympics and his experiences playing against the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League.

The 12 minute appearance was also discussed on Cambodian TV with pundits breaking down elements of his performance on a weekly football show highlighting the fundamentals he honed on Gower Park No 6.

Lim traces his football journey back to 2017, when Melville technical director Sam Wilkinson set him a questionnaire (along with all academy players).

“When I was 13 and in my first year at the academy we had a task where we had to put down our favourite player,” Lim said. “I put down Keisuke Honda. He was, and still is my favourite player, so when I met him for the first time and he gave me a fist bump it was crazy!

“We also had to put down what our goals and ambitions were in football and I put ‘to make National Talent Centre, become a professional player, and play for Cambodia’. So I’ve had this vision for a while now. Hearing the national anthem in an official match will be a dream come true.”

But it hasn’t all been a fairy tale for Lim, who has endured his fair share of setbacks in pursuing his goals, and he has some advice for other academy players with big football dreams.

“My journey to get here hasn’t been easy,” he said. “What I’ve experienced might have put others off. It hasn’t been rainbows and sunshine, it’s been a struggle.

“During the hardest moments I thought about coming home, but I had to remind myself that these difficulties will pass. I’ve learned to be dedicated and not let one setback stop you from continuing.”

Lim said his youth football education under Sam and Roger Wilkinson was of immense value.

“Some players in Cambodia have not had that kind of coaching we got at the academy which gives me something different here.

“Learning from Sam and Roger was great, and some of the foundation work we did is seen as very international in Cambodia.

“Rog used to drill me on the weight of pass. He always said I had a ‘hammer foot’.

“He was always telling me to check my shoulders too. And Sam was big on midfielders taking risks and playing forward and trying to get goals and assists.”

While the Wilkinsons are still working at the academy, Lim also acknowledged other club influences during his time at Melville United – including Michael Mayne, who is now working for New Zealand Football; Simon Tyndel who is coaching at the Perth Glory Academy in Australia; and Zeya Hussaini who is poised to return to Melville coaching in 2022.

New Zealand-born Lim qualifies through his Cambodian father Kun and the entire family are big supporters of Melville United.

Kun and his wife Marliese are regulars on the sidelines at club matches. His older brother Jett currently coaches on the academy and assists with the Melville United women’s first team, while his younger brother Lucca is a member of the academy.

Lucca has attracted the attention of New Zealand U-17 coach Martin Bullock and is currently part of the Regional Training Centre, the first step in representing New Zealand.

“Lucca is always asking me what it’s like in Cambodia, but he is on his own journey. All I’ve said to him is don’t let any setbacks stop you from chasing your dream.”

For now, Lim is happy in Cambodia and with another year left on his contract will return to Boeung Ket FC after the tournament in Japan to push for more first team appearances.
But he hasn’t ruled out a return to Gower Park in the future.

“That would be nice, but for now I’m happy to keep going here for as long as I can. When I was in the academy I thought I wanted to play for Real Madrid, own a nice car and earn heaps of money, but only 1 per cent get to do that.

“That doesn’t mean anything below that isn’t worth it, whether that’s playing in Cambodia or any other country. You can still enjoy a good life and make a career.”
Lim and the Cambodia U-22 will take on Hong Kong on October 23 before facing the hosts Japan three days later. The 11 group winners and four best second-placed teams will travel to Uzbekistan in June 2022.

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