HUNG YEN (Vietnam) • After a career that began in instant noodles, Vietnam's richest man knows all about long shots, and now he is taking another: Trying to get the football-mad country's national team to their first World Cup.
No South-east Asian team have played on football's biggest stage, but Pham Nhat Vuong - chief executive of the Vingroup conglomerate and Vietnam's first billionaire - has not let that deter him.
Vingroup's US$35 million (S$48.7 million) academy outside Hanoi has already helped Vietnam become a growing power in Asian football, after they reached the Asian Cup quarter-finals last year.
The national team were crowned Asean Football Federation champions in 2018, and their Under-22s won gold at the SEA Games last December.
The Golden Star Warriors also sit top of their World Cup second-round qualifying group, but they still have work to do if they are to grab one of Asia's four slots - or a fifth available through play-offs - for 2022.
But they can take heart from the example of World Cup hosts Qatar who, after building a state-of-the-art academy and drafting in foreign expertise, swept to their first Asian Cup title last year.
Manchester United legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have been enlisted as consultants for the Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talents (PVF) academy, which opened its doors in 2017.
The academy is complete with manicured pitches and ultra-modern equipment, including the 360S simulator - a customised room where players receive balls from various angles, and have to hit moving, electronic targets.
The facility is a bold venture from Vuong, who started out selling dried noodles in Ukraine before building Vietnam's biggest private conglomerate and amassing an estimated US$7.8 billion fortune.
The PVF academy's technical director, former Japan coach Philippe Troussier - who also leads Vietnam's U-19s - said the results had been positive.
He said: "We've started a strong process to develop our football, to develop our players, to educate the boys, to export the players to international level. We are on the way."
$49m Cost of Vingroup-owned Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talents (PVF) academy, which includes the 360S simulator - a customised room where players receive balls from various angles, and have to hit moving, electronic targets.
The school is home to nearly 200 young players aged nine to 19. They train up to five hours a day.
While Giggs and Scholes add star power and top-level experience, Troussier, 64, has coaching prowess. He led Japan to the 2000 Asian Cup title and the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup. But the 2022 event may still be a stretch for Vietnam.
"I don't think they will qualify for the 2022 World Cup as they have to replace at least one of the Asian powerhouses such as Iran, Japan or South Korea to get one of the few Asian places available," said Steve Darby, the former coach of Vietnam's women's team.
The 2026 World Cup - when the number of teams will jump from 32 to 48 - may be a more realistic target. But even then, Vietnam would be seen as "underdogs", said Darby.
"Any South-east Asian nation that qualify will be seen as a weaker nation and also probably be seeded quite low," he said.
Vietnam are No. 94 in the Fifa world rankings, an all-time high. Thirteen Asian Football Confederation teams are above them, including Australia, Qatar and China.
The youth teams are also showing promise, bagging their first spot at the U-20 World Cup in 2017 and reaching the final of the Asian U-23 championship a year later.
Defender Tran Hoang Phuc joined PVF in 2012 when he was 11 and has since been called up to Vietnam's U-19 side.
"I will try my best to play for the national team and hopefully to play at the world's biggest tournament, the World Cup," he said.