Frm Changzhou t My Dinh
An extraordinary year of Vietnamese football
Published: January 2019
It was early January 2018 and the young Vietnamese footballers arrived in Changzhou, China, for the AFC U23 Championship, with the modest goal of nothing more than bringing home at least one point. Local fans paid little or no attention at all to the tournament after they had been left utterly disillusioned by the national team’s uninspiring performance at the last Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia as well as previous competitions. Most thought of the Asian championship as merely a training tour for the Vietnamese players to gain some experience.
They were all wrong. Vietnam not only progressed through the group stage but even reached the final and only fell to Uzbekistan to finish second and kick off an unprecedentedly successful year for Vietnamese football which culminated with the long awaited AFF Cup trophy.
From underdogs to Asian runners-up
It all started a few months earlier when Park Hang-seo, a little known manager from the Republic of Korea (RoK), was named head coach of Vietnam’s U23 and national teams. The Korean’s appointment was greeted with little fanfare and even doubt given his not-so-impressive track record in his coaching career in recent years. Prior to Vietnam, the club coached by Park ranked at just number 6 out of 8 teams in Korea’s third-tier football league. But Park has proved to be a capable manager who was able to breathe new life into a dispirited team.
The “Golden Dragons” as Vietnamese players are nicknamed by the foreign media headed into the AFC U23 Championship in the position of underdogs. Progressing into the knockout round as the second-placed team in the group stage was something that nobody, even the most optimistic people, dared to think of prior to the Vietnamese team’s departure for Changzhou.
Surprisingly enough, Park Hang-seo’s side alternately knocked down giants Australia (1-0) and drew with Syria (0-0) in the group stage, before winning the quarterfinal clash against Iraq (5-3 on penalties) and seeing off Qatar (4-3 on penalties) in the semi-finals to secure their maiden place in the final match of a continental-level tournament. What’s worth mentioning is that all of the triumphs of Park’s troops were nail-biting and convincing.
Immediately after helping Vietnam U23s secure a runner-up finish at the AFC Championship, Park Hang-seo suddenly shot to fame not only in Vietnam but also in many other countries around the world. Despite taking charge of Vietnam’s national and U23 squads for just three months, the Republic of Korean tactician had succeeded in creating his own imprints and achieving initial success.
Most importantly, he helped eliminate a feeling of inferiority complex for the players when facing powerhouses in the continent. Thanks to a fighting spirit of the “warriors”, Vietnam U23s overcame continental heavyweights to book their first-ever place in the final of the AFC Championship.
On January 27, the Vietnamese players went through 120 memorable minutes amid heavy snowfall in the final at the Changzhou Stadium in Jiangsu, China.
Despite missing out on the overall trophy, Vietnam U23s had an extremely successful tournament in China and won admiration from many strong opponents on the continent. At that time, fans shared a viewpoint that regardless of the result of the title match, the “Golden Dragons” still deserved to be honoured.
Coach Park Hang-seo, meanwhile, extended an apology to the Vietnamese fans for failing to bring them complete joy. “I’m sorry for having been unable to gift the fans the championship trophy. However, my players fought with the best of their abilities, sometimes they tried far beyond their capabilities”.
Returning from their unbelievable AFC U23 journey on January 28, Park Hang-seo and his Vietnamese warriors received a hero’s welcome from the home fans as they travelled from the airport downtown.
Not only in the capital, people in cities and provinces across the country also flocked to the streets to celebrate the Asian feat of Vietnam U23s that evening. The spectacle of red flags with yellow stars flooding the streets for many kilometres made everyone who saw excited, while some even burst into tears. According to Vietnam U23 captain Luong Xuan Truong, it will be difficult to witness that image again in the football career of many players.
Asian Football Confederation (AFC) General Secretary Dato' Windsor John said: “Seeing fans pour into the streets to greet their national heroes, gathered in public spaces to watch matches, and decorate stadiums with the national flag are proud moments for all of us. Special praise must go to the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) for their progress and efforts in developing football at all levels”.
What Park and his U23 players achieved at the beginning of the year paved the way for the strong progress of Vietnamese football later on.
Vietnam’s Olympic team make the last four at Asiad
The 2018 Asiad quarterfinal clash on August 27 saw Vietnam’s Olympic team narrowly beat Syria 1-0 thanks to the “golden goal” by substitute Van Toan in the 108th minute. That night, the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district was flooded with people. Fans flocked there to dance and burn flares in celebration of the fabulous win of the “Golden Dragons”.
The historic triumph of Vietnam Olympic – making the last four at the 2018 Asiad – not only pleased fans across the country but also won words of praise from the online Asian community.
The fanpage of the AFC was full of comments from netizens for the “Golden Dragons” – the only representative of Southeast Asia to make the four strongest teams at the 2018 Asiad. Fans from Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India conveyed their congratulations, while showing their admiration for the striking feat achieved by Park Hang-seo and his “warriors”.
Many called Vietnam Olympic “the pride of Southeast Asia” or “football king of Southeast Asia”. Many shared the idea that Vietnamese football is rising vigorously to demonstrate its no. 1 position in the region thanks to a golden generation of talented young players.
The core forces of Vietnam Olympic were the players who had produced a runner-up finish at the 2018 AFC U23 Championships seven months earlier.
AFF Cup trophy – A sweet finish to encapsulate 2018
After ten years of waiting, Vietnam have taken the top honour at the ASEAN Football Championship – AFF Cup – for the second time. Park’s side demonstrated amazing form throughout the tournament, holding an eight-game unbeaten streak (six wins and two draws), scoring 15 goals and conceding only four times (two against the Philippines and two against Malaysia).
For the first time in nearly two decades, Vietnam conceded the fewest goals at a regional showpiece, which demonstrated their resilience in defence. The attacking power of the “Golden Dragons” was similarly impressive, with seven scorers holding the positions as midfielders and forwards.
In early November, the Vietnamese “warriors” started their AFF Cup campaign shouldering the responsibility of quenching the home fans’ decade-long thirst for the championship trophy. Coached by talented Park, the “Golden Dragons” were invincible in the group stage with three wins and one draw, and a complete clean sheet.
They went on to perform exceptionally in the semifinals against the Philippines, beating coach Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side by the same score of 2-1 over both legs. Once again, Vietnamese fans had the chance to immerse themselves in the ecstatic atmosphere of street celebrations throughout the country.
Moving onto the final match against Malaysia, the losers against Vietnam in the group stage, the “Golden Dragons” brilliantly held the “Malayan Tigers” to a 2-2 draw in the first leg at Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Jalil Stadium before narrowly defeating coach Tan Cheng Hoe’s troops with a solitary goal by veteran striker Nguyen Anh Duc to be officially crowned the new Southeast Asian champions.
The overall victory for Vietnam had already been predicted following the convincing displays they delivered through the matches under the wise leadership of experienced and competent Park Hang-seo. The Korean coach affirmed his talent and “special magic” via his successful journeys with Vietnamese football at three levels: U23, Olympic and national team. With what he has done, Park has become a real friendship ambassador between Vietnam and the Republic of Korea.
The golden trophy won by the golden generation of players has wrapped up a year which couldn’t have been sweeter for Vietnamese football. The entire nation poured into the streets to celebrate in full joy and happiness. The resounding success at the regional showpiece will function as a crucial launchpad and a premise for Vietnam’s national team to qualify for and affirm themselves in larger playing fields. As stated by newly appointed VFF President Le Khanh Hai, he would coordinate with his partners to work out specific action plans, aimed at realising the goal of bringing Vietnamese football to participate in the World Cup playground by 2030.