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Vietnam’s Magical Football Journey Culminates in a Battle Against Japan

After getting out of their group by virtue of a superior disciplinary record, Vietnam’s progress to the quarterfinals of Asian football’s showpiece event in the UAE has been achieved by some familiar faces.

Vietnam's penalty shootout victory against Jordan on Sunday was an anniversary of sorts. It marked exactly one year to the day since Vietnam’s U-23 team had produced a similar come-from-behind penalty shootout win against Iraq at the quarterfinal stage of the U-23 AFC Championship in China. What made it a reunion party, too, was that no less than eight members of the team were involved in both games.

In total, twelve of the history-making U-23 squad in China, who were narrowly beaten in the snow by Uzbekistan in the final, were available for selection against Jordan. Only reserve goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung (23), who was a hero of that tournament; midfielder Pham Duc Huy (23), who played the full 120 minutes against Iraq; utility player Nguyen Phong Hong Duy (22); and defender Nguyen Thanh Chung (21) ended the game against Jordan as unused substitutes.

Remarkably, six of the eight who saw game time against Jordan did so as part of the starting eleven, underscoring the fast-track development of a so-called ‘golden generation’ of Vietnamese footballers, who have displayed incredible team spirit, one of their strengths.

Striker Nguyen Cong Phuong (23), who scored the 51st-minute equalizer that ensured extra-time; free-kick specialist Nguyen Quang Hai (21); midfield pair Phan Van Duc (22) and Do Duy Manh (22); as well as defender Bui Tien Dung (23), who scored Sunday’s decisive penalty, now form the core of Vietnam’s nascent Golden Stars. Fearless 19-year-old Doan Van Hau, who was an unused sub in the game against Iraq 12 months ago, also started in the heart of Vietnam’s defense.

Coming on as substitutes were defender Nguyen Van Toan (22), who was also on the bench against Iraq; and midfielder Luong Xuan Truong (23), who must be one of the coolest players around, having now scored in three famous penalty shootouts for his country.

Now just a game away from an unlikely first-ever semifinal appearance at this level — Vietnam was a surprise quarter-finalist in 2007 when they co-hosted with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in a reduced 16-team edition of the Asian Cup — the teams’ progress, albeit slightly fortuitous, is vindication for an obvious youth-centric policy. South Korean coach Park Hang-seo, who helms both the U-23 and national squads, deserves credit for continuing to put faith in his young players to make the leap into senior international football.

With a semifinal appearance at last August’s Asian Games, a first win in ten years at the AFF Cup in December, and the title of ‘Person of the Year’ in his home country, Park’s policy of ‘picking kids’ is working for him.

Amongst those taking the field in the UAE, Vietnam’s squad is easily the youngest, with an average age of only 23. Vietnam has 16 out of a possible 23 squad members below age 24, more than any of the other remaining teams. 

By comparison, tonight’s opponent, Japan, has five, none of whom took part in the China tournament, as they were busy playing in some of Europe’s top leagues or holding down first-team spots at their J-League clubs. Defending Asian Cup champions Australia have three players under 24, and tournament favorite South Korea has five, though none were present at the U-23 tournament. Korea’s quarterfinal opponents, Qatar, are the next-youngest squad, with eleven members under the age of 24 and an average playing age of 25.

What’s also noticeable, particularly when compared to the Japanese squad, is the difference in where they are playing their club football. Every member of Vietnam’s team, with the exception of goalkeeper Dang Van Lam, who recently signed for Thai club Muangthong United, still plays in the domestic V-League.

By contrast, Japan’s players ply their trade in some of the best leagues in the world, and their own is one of the strongest in Asia. Their captain, Maya Yoshida, is something of a Premier League legend, having played more than 170 times for Southampton. Left-back Yuto Nagatomo, the most capped player in their squad, only recently left Inter Milan in Italy’s Serie A to join Turkish giants Galatasaray, having racked up 210 league and cup appearances there.

All of it serves as a glaring reminder of the gulf between the two countries, particularly when it comes to the depth of talent available, and the quality of their domestic leagues. You don’t have to be a world-class pundit to understand that Vietnam is a massive underdog for tonight’s game; very much a "David vs. Goliath" of Asian football.

For Vietnamese fans, win or lose, they’ll be hoping that in five years' time the current emphasis on youth serves as a Korean-flavored lesson in how to galvanize a core group of players for whom World Cup qualification remains the ultimate Everest. For that should be the dream of every young Vietnamese footballer watching the game tonight.

Vietnam will play Japan in the quarter-final of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE on Thursday, January 24. The game kicks off at 8pm Vietnam time.

[Photo via 24h]


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