The Vietnamese football team: paving the way for a bright future in South East Asia

By Alex Brotherton

Within the cultural, racial and political melting pot that is Asian football, the region of South East Asia often finds itself forgotten. The likes of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have over the years made multiple appearances at World Cups and have won numerous Asian Cups. Meanwhile, Australia’s membership of the South East Asia Football Federation (ASEAN) notwithstanding, South East Asia has been under-represented. But while westerners associate that corner of the world with anything but football, a sleeping giant appears to be awakening. Keen to known for more than just a war, Vietnam is on the rise.

One thing that should be understood, despite the largely bleak history of its football, is that Vietnam is absolutely football mad. However, the “support your local team” mantra that is often worn like a badge of honour in England has not really caught on. Visit Hanoi and supporters of Hà Nội F.C. are hard to come by, as are fans of Ho Chi Minh City FC and Sài Gòn F.C. in the south. Here, European Football, particularly the English Premier League, rules the roost. Supporter groups of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, to name but a few, cram into cafes at unsociable hours to watch their far-away heroes strut their stuff. Visit any town across the country and chances are you’ll come across stalls selling counterfeit shirts, while kids run around with Messi and Ronaldo on their backs. So why then, if the population is so football crazy, has their domestic and international game long been in the dark? The answer is threefold; corruption, team instability and a lack of quality.

In terms of quality, Vietnam’s two professional leagues (V.League 1 and 2) are lightyears behind Asia’s best. Granted, Vietnam has not exactly been flush with money in the past, but the last thirty years has seen the country’s economy skyrocket, thanks to a shift from a central planned to a market economy. But despite this, investment in footballing infrastructure is widely lacking. Still today, many stadiums in the top flight are crumbling while pitches and training facilities are in desperate need of modernisation. With largely neglected facilities, it’s difficult for attractive football to flourish. The decay has long been evidenced in the AFC Club Competition Ranking, an index ranking Asia’s leagues based on club performances in the AFC Champions League and on countries’ FIFA World Rankings. Vietnam are ranked 19th, behind ASEAN rivals Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines. Given the choice between watching a poor-quality game in a decrepit stadium or watching the likes of Salah and De Bruyne from the comfort of a bar, it’s not surprising the choice fans make.

Corruption has played its part too and to a certain extent, the V.League still suffers from it. In the first half of the decade, each season saw a wave of owner arrests, team withdrawals and player confessions. The most notable of such incidents came in 2014, when Vissai Ninh Bình F.C. withdrew just eight games into the new V.League 1 season after discovering that thirteen of their players were involved in match-fixing. Their results were declared null and void, and the team disbanded in 2015. The national team has not been immune to such incidents either; 2005 saw the arrests of U23 stars Phạm Văn Quyến and Lê Quốc Vượng for fixing matches at that year’s South East Asian Games. It’s understandably difficult for fans to become excited by the league if it’s rigged and predetermined.

The seemingly constant relocation, disbanding and merging of teams since Vietnam’s top two leagues turned professional in 2001, has also strained relationships between supporters and clubs. A number of current V.League teams have been through the mill of mind-boggling reincarnations and survived, but far more have fell by the wayside. Contradicting Vietnam’s communistic setup, team relocation is driven by owners’ desire to meet profit margins, as most of the teams are in fact franchises. The league is so capital driven that some teams even incorporate sponsors into their names, such as Becamex Binh Duong F.C. and Hà Nội T&T F.C.

But the founding of Sài Gòn F.C. proves that the attachment of supporters to a team can not be successfully manufactured. What was once the youth team of Hà Nội T&T (now Hà Nội F.C.) was sold to Quang Huy Plastics Joint Stock Company and established as (confusingly) Hà Nội F.C. Three years later, it relocated 1,000 South to Ho Chi Minh City and was renamed Sài Gòn F.C. All in the middle of the 2016 season. Since, the franchise has struggled to build a fanbase and regularly sees gates of less than 300, more than ten times less than the long established Ho Chi Minh City FC. It’s really no surprise many follow teams thousands of miles away in Europe given that stable, sustainable and supporter orientated teams are few and far between. Cultivating a connection and attachment between a football club and its local community is a two-way process and takes time like any relationship. The VPF (Vietnam Professional Football Joint Stocks Company) and its clubs clearly don’t understand this.

Ultimately, the instability and soullessness of Vietnam’s domestic club football has driven fans to unite behind the national team, a side that can’t move hundreds of miles away at the drop of a hat. But when images of red-clad fanatics swamping the streets of Hanoi during the 2018 AFC U23 Championship and the Suzuki Cup spread across Twitter, it became obvious that something special was happening. Vietnam has moved mountains on and off the pitch.

Like with many tales of romantic footballing ascents, the seeds of success were planted at youth level. If there is a single moment that can be pinpointed as the start of Vietnam’s footballing rebirth, it is the founding of the Hoàng Anh Gia Lai– Arsenal JMG Academy in 2007. A cooperative venture between Arsenal FC (yes, that Arsenal), JMG Academy (an academy set up in 2002 by ex-France international Jean-Marc Guillou that has bases across Africa and Asia) and the Hoàng Anh Gia Lai(HAGL) Corporation, the academy was established to address absence of systematic training and technical focus in Vietnamese football. Located in the highlands just outside Pleiku in a retreat like setting, the centre offers an almost spiritual education on how to master the game. The trainees practice on lush pitches, live in modern villas and relax in pristine swimming pools. Such is the commitment to honing their skills, players must train barefoot until they have mastered juggling the ball. If there was a way Vietnamese football was going to save its future, this was it.

Up until this point, the Vietnam Football Federation had never really had a long-term strategy concerning the future of the national team. The country had no history or means of producing skilful, technical players, so the team’s style of play was typically physical and rough. This approach worked to a certain extent, but it didn’t result in much success either. Slighter in stature than many of their Asian counterparts, Vietnam often found themselves outmuscled in their own game of rough and tumble. With no clear strategy or identity on the pitch, Vietnam’s trophy cabinet was long bare, the 1959 Southeast Asian Games title (won as South Vietnam) and a 1998 AFF Championship runner-up medal the only significant achievements. The end of the 2000s saw an upturn in fortunes, as the Golden Dragons reached the quarter finals of the 2007 Asian Cup (although as co-hosts, they bypassed the usual hurdle of qualification) before upsetting a fancied Thailand side in a two-legged final to win the 2008 AFF Championship. However, the honeymoon period did not last long as Vietnam failed to qualify for the next two Asian Cups, sliding back into footballing obscurity.

Amidst the corruption and scandals that marred Vietnamese football in the mid-2010s, a period when Vietnam dropped to 147thin the FIFA World Rankings, the academy came to fruition. From 2014 onwards, the first crop of youngsters graduated from the HAGL-JMG Arsenal Academy and began to gain minutes in V.League 1 and 2, while simultaneously breaking into the Vietnam U20 and U23 sides. Amongst those talents was Nguyễn Công Phượng, a now highly regarded forward coined by the local media as the “Vietnamese Messi”, such are his technical abilities. One of only fourteen out of seven thousand applicants to be accepted into the academy, Công Phượng went on to be named Vietnamese young player of the year in 2015 and has attracted international attention with his silky performances. His HAGL classmates, Nguyễn Văn Toàn and Lương Xuân Trường, have also impressed upfront and in midfield respectively, as have graduates from the Hà Nội F.C. academy, another prominent producer of talent. Nineteen-year-old left back Doan Van Hau has cemented his place in both the Hà Nội and Vietnam first teams remarkably quickly and is attracting interest from Japanese and Korean clubs. But Nguyễn Quang Hảiis their crown jewel, a midfielder who at the tender age of 21 was named player of the tournament at the 2018 AFF Championship and is now a national team star.

After sacrificing success in the previous years to focus on building for the future, 2018 was the year the world took notice of Vietnam. In January 2018 the U23 men’s team travelled to China for the AFC U23 Championship, but looked to be heading home early after a 2-1 opening game defeat to South Korea. However, against the odds the Golden Dragons turned it around, a historic 1-0 win against Australia and a 0-0 draw with Syria enough to secure a first ever knockout berth. In the Quarter-Finals they played out a thrilling 3-3 draw with Iraq before prevailing on penalties, but it was the semi-final tie with Qatar that demonstrated the tenacious, never-say-die attitude that makes Vietnam so special.

Despite falling behind twice, goals from Nguyễn Quang Hảikept Vietnam alive and sent the tie to another shootout. Quang Hảimissed his side’s first spot kick, but the Golden Dragons kept their nerve and triumphed 4-3, sparking frenzied celebrations up and down the country. The final proved to be a step to far, as a cruel 120thminute winner broke Vietnamese hearts and saw Uzbekistan snatch a 2-1 win. But the result of the final didn’t really matter; the Vietnamese public had fallen back in love with their heroes, living every kick, every last-ditch tackle and every crucial goal. With fans marching the streets after every win with red flags, pyro and the soundtrack of hundreds of honking scooters, the country had become infected by a fanaticism seldom seen before. But the hype wasn’t about to end.

August 2018 saw the Asian Games hosted in Indonesia and again Vietnam’s under 23 men’s team performed admirably. Topping a group of Japan, Pakistan and Nepal with three wins from three, the youngsters dispatched of first Bahrain, then Syria in the knockouts, before succumbing to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of South Korea. No matter however, as big things were on the horizon at December’s AFF Suzuki Cup.

Despite coming into the tournament off the back of a two-year unbeaten streak, Vietnam were not fancied to become champions, with 2016 winners Thailand and Sven-Goran-Eriksson’s Philippines the heavy favourites. Park-Hang-seo’s side surprised though and breezed into the semi-finals without conceding a goal, playing clinical counter attacking football while remaining impenetrable at the back. The Philippines provided a decent test in the two-legged semi-final, but Vietnam navigated them efficiently with two 2-1 victories, setting up a two-legged final with Malaysia.

After racing into an early 2-0 first leg lead, the Golden Dragons felt the pressure of the 88,000 plus crowd and escaped Kuala Lumpur with a 2-2 draw. However, four days later they seized their moment. Nguyễn Anh Đức’s sixth minute strike, his fourth of the tournament, was enough to secure victory at Hanoi’s My Dinh National Stadium, crowning Vietnam AFF Champions for the first time since 2008. Cue more wild celebrations from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and a palpable sense of anticipation for the 2019 Asian Cup.

Rather than sticking with the formula that served them well the month before, head coach Park-Hang-seo made some adjustments ahead of Asian football’s showpiece event. Experienced players who starred in the Suzuki Cup triumph, including top goal scorer Nguyễn Anh Đức(33) and captainNguyễn Văn Quyết(27) made way for the next generation. In line with Vietnam’s commitment to youth development, Park said, “They can still play well at the Asian Cup, but I have decided to go with younger players”. As a result, Vietnam had the youngest squad at the tournament, with an average age of just 23.13. While their performances were by no means vintage, the youngsters fought hard with guts and determination against sides with more prestige and experience. An impressive display against Iraq was only undone by a superb 90thminute Ali Adnan freekick, before a 2-0 defeat to heavyweights Iran left the Dragons with slim hopes of progression. But as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave. When a 2-0 win against Yemen left Vietnam and Lebanon with identical records in the third-placed finishers table, it was the former’s superior disciplinary record that saw them progress to the knockout stages for the first time, as they received fewer yellow cards than The Cedars.

The 20thJanuary 2019 is a date that will be forever immortalised in the history of Vietnamese football. Jordan, who had shocked World Cup ever-present Australia and topped Group B, were the opponents in the Round of 16 clash, and understandably favourites to go through. But in the sink or swim environment of a one-off knockout game, Vietnam came into their own, enjoying the lions share of possession and chances. And even after Abdel-Rahman gave the Jordanians the lead with a stunning free-kick, they refused to lie down. Building up ahead of steam, the 51stminute saw Vietnam get their just reward. From the right-hand side, Nguyễn Trọng Hoàngsent in a deep Beckham-esque cross which evaded the desperate defenders. Stealing half a yard on his marker, Công Phượng sent an emphatic right foot volley high into the net, sending the Vietnamese faithful gathered behind the goal into delirium.

The match ended up in a shootout, a situation Vietnam’s youngsters looked like they’d navigated a hundred times before. Their first three spot kicks were all coolly converted, while keeper Đặng Văn Lâmsaw one penalty crash of the bar before saving the next. Twenty-three-year-old centre back Bùi Tiến Dũngdealt Jordan the final blow, sending Vietnam into their first ever quarter-final. But unfortunately, as often happens in football, the fairy-tale ended abruptly. Despite a spirited performance, during which they often gave as good as they got, a dubious penalty was enough for Japan to sneak a 1-0 win, and Vietnam were out.

While the future looks incredibly bright for the lads in red and gold, fans and critics know there is still much work to be done. While competitive tournaments like the Asian Cup will help to develop and mature Vietnam’s footballers, playing week in week out in higher quality leagues than their own will take them to the next level. The recent loan move of Nguyễn Công Phượng to South Korea’s Incheon United is a step in the right direction, and shows that Asia’s elite are recognising the talents emerging from the east of the Indochina Peninsula. Crucially though, academies like the HAGL-JMG must continue to thrive. They are the saviours of Vietnam’s favourite sport, free from the corruption and scandal of the professional game. As the Vietnamese proverb goes; Cây lành sinh trái ngǫt. A good tree produces fruit.  

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