Vietnam’s recent successes on the world stage are testament to an enlightened development programme that has produced a golden generation of young stars.
“It’s like a dream,” cries supporter Vuong Tuan as he raises yet another glass of bia hoi, Vietnam’s famously cheap fresh-brewed lager, to toast the success of the nation’s under-23 football side with his friends.
The seat of government and the cradle of Vietnamese heritage, Hanoi is known more for its elegant architecture and beguiling lakes than it is for its parties. As the victories mounted up in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup in January this year, denizens of the 1,000-year-old capital belied the city’s conservative reputation to let their hair down.
The country’s teeming major cities are rarely sedate affairs anyway. But the noise rose to a crescendo as the team fell just short in the final of the competition.
Football fever spread like wildfire as the victories mounted up. The team followed up defeat against South Korea in the first game with wins against Australia, then Iraq and Qatar. During the matches, the country fell unnaturally quiet. Traffic-clogged streets emptied and supporters shifted to coffee shops, bars and even cinemas offering special screenings of the games to urge the team through the competition.
As snow showers carpeted the pitch at the Changzhou Olympic Centre in China where the final was held, Vietnam’s dreams of glory were smothered— Uzbekistan nabbing victory with a winner in the last minute of extra time.
Defeat, though, didn’t stop festivities. By the time of the final, members of the side had already been granted the status of heroes. Congratulations flooded in from figures such as prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, while budget carrier Vietjet decided to reward the players with a celebratory display by bikini-clad models on the flight back to Hanoi—a stunt that earned it a financial penalty as well as derision from Vietnam’s online community.
While tears flowed freely at the dramatic final loss, the overall mood remained one of elation. Thousands of Vietnamese in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other population centres created a deafening symphony using motorbike horns and kitchen utensils. Such elation was easy to understand given how seriously Vietnam takes its rare international sporting successes.
“People felt it was quite a significant moment,” says Mai Huyen Chi, a Ho Chi Minh City-based writer and filmmaker. “It was a gleam of patriotic hope with no strings attached. That’s important, as things haven’t been totally great in the country over the last few years. There’s been a lot of underlying discontent. The players became heroes because it was as if they helped reinforce our dignity as Vietnamese.”
The seeds of this success—and the catalyst for a turnaround in fortunes that has experts tipping Vietnam to be a major football force in the region for years to come— were sown in a somewhat more restrained environment.
Blessed with mountains, lakes and thick jungle inhabited by bears, primates and the odd endangered elephant, Gia Lai is the largest province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Known for its natural beauty as well as traditional festivals such as an annual ritual where a buffalo is stabbed to death, the remote region has hitherto been less famous as a hotbed of sporting potential.
But it is here in this mountain idyll that one of Asia’s most productive football factories—the Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal JMG Academy—has worked its alchemy on the Vietnam national side.
In fact, it’s hard to believe that just six years ago, Vietnamese football was facing a crisis borne of corruption and greed. The nation’s top-flight V League was under siege, with many of its top clubs threatened with closure due to financial mismanagement. At the same time, businessman Nguyen Duc Kien, then boss of the Vietnam Football Federation, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for tax evasion and illegal trading. High in the Central Highlands, however, the seeds of recovery were being sown even as the country’s top league descended into the mire.
A collaboration among English giants Arsenal, French football school JMG Academy and Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai, which owns V League side Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC, the academy has amassed some impressive stats since launching with the backing of the VFF in 2007.
When the Vietnam under-23 team defeated Malaysia 3-0 in 2017, nine of the Vietnamese squad—a full half of the group—had come through the academy ranks. The senior national side’s young core, from striker Nguyen Cong Phuong—known as Messi Vietnam due to a tricky playing style reminiscent of the Argentinean superstar —to full back Vu Van Thanh and midfielder and captain of the under-23 side Luang Xuan Truong, was forged at the facility and is expected to inspire the team for years to come. Vietnam’s impressive progress, meanwhile, was underlined when it was Southeast Asia’s only representative at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea last year.
“I believe that Vietnam certainly has the players to be the dominant force in Southeast Asia and a nation that should aim to consistently qualify for and reach the latter stages of Asian competitions and qualify for the World Cup,” says Fox Sports Asia pundit Scott McIntyre. “Over the past half-decade plus, the work that not only HAGL, but also Hanoi FC and others have done through exceptional youth development, has created this leading generation of players.”
Located just outside the city of Pleiku, the HAGL- Arsenal JMG Academy is situated at an elevation of just under 1,000m. The cool climate provides ideal training conditions, while manicured pitches, a swimming pool and immaculate residential villas for the young players give the facility the feel of a sports-focused resort.
It’s hard to believe that just six years ago, Vietnamese football was facing a crisis borne of corruption and greed. High in the Central Highlands, however, the seeds of recovery were being sown even as the country’s top league descended into the mire.
For the initial recruitment drive, thousands of hopefuls travelled to the Central Highlands from all over Vietnam to try out for the academy. From these, a select group of around 30 made the grade. Judicious pruning— each year the intake is kept intentionally stingy—as well as rigorous focus on ball skills, strengthening and fitness has paid noticeable dividends.
While small players such as Nguyen Cong Phuong and others will never be physical beasts, daily gym sessions have built strength and stamina, and relentless work on technique has shaped academy graduates into some of Vietnam’s most potent footballing weapons.
“The academy has given us [the players] the right mindset, the physical strength and the determination to be a real force in the region,” adds Cong Phuong. “All of us hope and believe that Vietnam will become a strong football country in the future.”
There’s plenty of evidence it will do so. Other academies and major youth development initiatives have followed in the wake of the HAGL-Arsenal JMG Academy. Notable among these is the snappily titled Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talents Football Club [PVF for short], which has links with Manchester United and last year announced the appointment of former United winger Ryan Giggs as a director responsible for training and evaluating senior coaches.
V League clubs have also helped shoulder the burden of taking the beautiful game—by far the most popular sport in the country—up a level in Vietnam. Patience, not always a commodity valued by clubs hungry for short- term success, is being deployed to help build stability and consistency and grow stronger roots.
Rather than turning to expensive foreign managers, local coaches are being handed long-term positions. Benefiting the game also are enlightened youth policies at various clubs, which have produced stars such as Nguyen Quang Hai of Hanoi FC, Vietnam’s top scorer at the AFC Cup.
The rosy picture is a far cry from how things were just a few years ago. Although Vietnam’s senior national side won the ASEAN Football Federation Cup in 2008, the national game endured an annus horribilis in 2012. The year was a stinker for Vietnam in general amid an economic crisis and a property crash. The country’s football fortunes too slid markedly, with many clubs facing financial and sponsorship difficulties and having to withdraw from the V League. A period of retrenchment followed, and clubs began to steady the ship with sponsors returning as the country’s economy recovered. All the while, the VFF’s farsighted policy towards youth development was beginning to bear fruit high up in the Central Highlands.
One import who is bucking the prevailing trend of localisation in Vietnamese football is Hang Seo Park, the South Korean coach of the under-23 side and the senior national side. Although his appointment in 2017 was greeted with some scepticism—the manager arriving from a minor-league team in his home country—his achievement in steering the under-23 side to the AFC Cup final has burnished his reputation significantly.
Observers praise the heightened skill, technique and strength that state-of-the-art academies such as HAGL-Arsenal JMG and PVF have bestowed on the Vietnamese side. Traditionally though, it has been a belief among many—even Vietnamese supporters—that the team is held back by the short stature of the players.
Park, who was assistant manager to the South Korean national team under Dutch boss Guus Hiddink during the 2002 World Cup, says that lack of height is immaterial and believes that the Vietnamese side has what it takes to establish itself as the pre-eminent force in Southeast Asia.
“Vietnamese players have their own strong points and techniques to compensate for what they lack in strength and size,” he said in an interview with Vietnamese news portal VN Express in the aftermath of the AFC Cup. “Small players are quicker. Vietnamese players are smart. They can easily understand my instructions and adapt to them very quickly.”
Although the side’s success in China has earned Park kudos—Vietnamese media have hailed him as a miracle worker—others are less enamoured by his style.
While critical thinking was in short supply among Vietnamese fans during the run—hardly a shock given the emotions it stirred—detractors bemoaned the defensive strategies adopted by the coach. McIntyre says he believes that the potency of Cong Phuong and other attacking players had been blunted by a win-at-all-costs mentality.
“All coaches should have been using the tournament purely as a preparation for the coming editions of the senior AFC Cup, with the focus being on development, exposure to different systems and trying to play positively,” says McIntyre. “From my point of view, Vietnam was one of the few nations that did the opposite in trying purely and simply to win their matches at whatever cost possible.
“This approach is specifically wrong for this Vietnamese team, the bulk of whom came through [under a local coach] the U20 side that played a vastly different brand of football that was far better suited to their skills. Those [skills] being excellent technical capability, brilliant close control, a willingness to take defenders on and some excellent creativity in the final third. In short, the strengths of the team are built around the attacking players, not the defensive ones. Under Park though, what we got was pragmatism and a reluctance to let the attacking players show their capabilities.”
While Park’s credentials and approach may be in question, nobody doubts the potential of Vietnam’s young players.
Indeed, McIntyre says that “this generation of players are the best in terms of pure technique anywhere in Southeast Asia and right up there with any across the continent and beyond”. Vietnam has never qualified for the World Cup, but fans and analysts are watching as Cong Phuong, Quang Hai, Xuan Truong and others aim to break that streak. Its next test will be the ASEAN Football Federation Cup, starting in November. Thailand has dominated in recent years, but the under-23 success has raised hopes that Vietnam can break the Thai stranglehold.
“We can be a big team in the region,” says Cong Phuong. “We are strong and we are determined.”
The AFC Cup is generally not regarded as one of world football’s big-ticket events. And, as McIntyre points out, this year’s instalment was of even less significance as it was not in an Olympic cycle. What Vietnam’s success proved, however, was that its players can excel on the big stage against quality opposition. And that they have fervent support whose passion for their side is genuine and strong. At the rate the team is progressing, there will be plenty more glory to toast with bia hoi in future.
This article was originally published in the June/July issue of Esquire Singapore.