SAMINDRA KUNTI / AIPS: Vietnam’s backroom staff, before their opening Group D game in the Asian Cup, had analysed opponents Iraq for weeks and had transmitted more than a mere message of confidence to their players: they had predicted a 3-1 victory. Instead Vietnam went down 3-2 to Iraq and a last-minute set piece from Ali Adnan.
In the day’s other match Saudi Arabia opened their Group E campaign in style with a 4-0 victory over North Korea.
As for Vietnam they ran, fought and battled for 90 minutes, but fell short. Still, the result was a testimony to their recent rise in the Asian game. Last year Vietnam enjoyed a blockbuster year by reaching the final of the U-23 Asian Cup, playing the last four of the Asian Games and winning the Suzuki Cup.

At the youth level they were defeated 2-1 by Turkmenistan in frosty conditions and South Korea overpowered Vietnam at the Asian Games, but Vietnam came good in their third competition of 2018 bsp;when they won the final of the Suzuki Cup over two legs against Malaysia. Their victory signalled the end of Thailand’s regional dominance and a boost to Vietnamese football.

“The second place in the U-23 Asian Cup was a historic milestone for Vietnamese football,” explained Hieu Phan, a journalist from VTV, Vietnam’s national broadcaster.

“From that point Vietnam believed they could perform much better at the international level. There was more self-confidence. They believed in the coach Park Hang-seo and did what he said. Everything went well. Based on that confidence and hard work, they grew up and gained more experience. The title in the Suzuki Cup was just a consequence of our preparation from the first month of the year.”

South Korean coach Park Hang-seo has been credited with the rise of Vietnamese football, but their recent successes are in as much part of a modernisation of youth football and an attempt at kicking out match-fixing, which riddled the domestic game in the past. At the SEA Games in 2005 a number of Vietnam’s U-23 players participated in organised betting, selling the match against Myanmar.

“In the past, there were scandals about this problem,” explained Phan. “Players had relationships with the betting industry and they were controlled by them and followed what they said in order to get money. They’d be threatened with kidnapping. Very bad things happened to them if they didn’t follow those rules. Today, it’s very strict. The Federation and the police monitor the relationships of the players and have access to their phones. Even if the players would think about it, they can’t do it.”

A new generation of players are now taking Vietnam forward. In the starting line-up against Iraq seven players from last year’s U-23 team featured, with another five included in the 22-men squad. They have benefited from youth development by private academies that have mushroomed across the country and deliver a high-quality football education.

“The progress is about the development of our academies,” said Phan. “In the past we had only two or three academies, but today we have ten or eleven academies of good quality, all the facilities, and the training methods follow the model of European football and more and more good, young problems are coming through the ranks. PVF, And Hoang Anh Gia Lai and Viettel are among the best.”

But even youth has its limits: they have been subjected to a physically demanding schedule. In 2018, Vietnamese played in three international tournaments. The players also competed in their domestic league, racking up a high number of games. “It is quite a problem for our team in this tournament,” highlighted Phan. “They played many tournaments in the last year and they are quite tired. Some players have played 64,65 games, even more than Eden Hazard, but the coach has a detailed schedule to practice and recover.

Phuong Cong and Quang Hai spearheaded Vietnam in the game, but, predictably, Vietnam tired in the last 20 minutes of the match and in a lapse of concentration they conceded the fatal free kick. It was a dent on their progress and coach Hang-seo remained tight-lipped at the press conference about the team’s long term future, but over 90 minutes Vietnam demonstrated that they have a bright future.