Suzuki Cup: The rise and rise of Vietnamese football

Ranked 99th now, the Vietnamese team is the only Asean team in the top 100 and the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - In December 2006, Vietnamese football hit its nadir when the national team slumped to 172nd in the world rankings. Yet in just 15 years, the Golden Dragons have managed to lift themselves not just out of the doldrums but into a golden era.

Ranked 99th now, they are the only Asean team in the top 100 and the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. While they have lost all their matches against Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, Oman and China, they proved hard to beat and never lost by more than two goals.

Having rubbed shoulders with Asia's elite, Vietnam fans will expect their team to retain their Suzuki Cup title.

Football consultant Dzung Le, who was also the former chief executive of V.League 2 side Pho Hien, said: "The current Vietnam national team are the best we have had. Our closest competition will probably be Thailand but if you ask anyone from Vietnam, they will tell you that they fully expect us to win the Suzuki Cup this year."

Youth development

The key to their remarkable rise can be traced to the Central Highlands, where the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Academy - the country's first football training centre - was set up in 2007 under a partnership with English Premier League side Arsenal, French football school JMG Academy and Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai.

Thirty players are hand-picked annually, and it is said that these pre-teens start off barefooted and are allowed to wear boots only after they have mastered juggling the ball.

Thereafter, they train five hours a day at the state-of-the-art facility with manicured pitches and swimming pools, and also receive quality academic education on site.

The youngsters live in villas and typically graduate after seven years to join V.League teams; at least 10 from the inaugural batch of trainees are with V.League 1 side Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC now.

Other private academies followed, such as the Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talent (PVF) Football Academy which enlisted Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs to be its director to train and evaluate senior coaches.

Last year, it became the first football academy in South-east Asia to be conferred the highest grade of three stars by the Asian Football Confederation. The grading is part of the regional body's Elite Youth Scheme aimed at lifting development programmes in AFC member nations.

Academies are rated on 20 performance categories spanning across administration, facilities and programmes, as well as player-centric factors such as welfare, psychology and education.

V.League clubs Viettel and Ha Noi also hopped onto the bandwagon, setting up academies to add to the conveyor belt of young talent. Such investment in youth development paid off when the Vietnam Under-23s finished second in the AFC U-23 Championship and fourth at the 2018 Asian Games before winning the 2019 SEA Games gold.

Some players have emerged to become idols and role models like "Vietnamese Messi" Nguyen Cong Phuong, who went on to play in Japan, South Korea and Belgium.

Vietnam football analyst Quan Tran Tue told The Straits Times: "The academies really changed the landscape of the sport in the country. The success of the first one had knock-on effects because clubs and other organisations saw the role of youth development in terms of improving the scene here and followed suit."

He pointed to the examples of Cong Phuong and central midfielders Nguyen Hoang Duc, who have drawn interest from clubs in Thailand, Spain and South Korea, as well as wide forward Nguyen Quang Hai, voted the most valuable player at the 2018 Suzuki Cup.

Said Tran Tue: "Thanks to the academies, Vietnamese players are now technically superior compared to what we had in the past and tactically, they are also smarter."

Coach the key

Vietnam were also able to translate the results to senior level by winning the 2018 Suzuki Cup, and many have credited South Korean coach Park Hang-seo for guiding the senior and U-23 teams to another level since taking over in 2017. Sights are already set on making the 48-team World Cup in 2026.

"Here, he is an icon already - the best manager we have had. We can always feel and see the passion from him and we know how much he wants the national team to do well," said Van Tien, a 38-year-old Vietnam fan based in Hanoi.

The no-nonsense 64-year-old Park was assistant to Guus Hiddink in the South Korean national team that finished fourth at the 2002 World Cup, and while he has been known to yell at his players, the Korean has the ability to bring the best out of them as they look to him as a father figure.

Park said: "Vietnamese players have their own unique special qualities in terms of pace, strength and technique that I do not see in Japanese or South Korean players.

"I don't know why people keep saying that being small is a weak point for Vietnamese players. Small players are quicker, and in addition, Vietnamese players are smart, they can understand my strategies easily and adapt to them very quickly."

However, with the recent string of seven straight losses, there has been criticism of an "overly pragmatic" approach with his 5-4-1 counter-attacking philosophy.

Still, it would be instructive to note that these defeats were all against higher-ranked opponents, some of whom are continental powerhouses, and Vietnam are unbeaten in 17 matches against Asean rivals since Park came on board.

For this Suzuki Cup, they are drawn into Group B where they will play Laos (Monday), Malaysia (Dec 12), Indonesia (Dec 15) and Cambodia (Dec 19) at the Bishan Stadium, and they are expected to return with their third AFF Championship on New Year's Day.

Said Le: "We have the best generation of players now and after a bad run in the last few matches, Vietnam football fans and the team are looking for positive results. The pressure is on the coach to deliver for sure. As a nation, we expect nothing less than being Asean champions again."

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