In a country where it seens you canwatch more of the Premier League than back in the competition’s native England, you would think the passion for football would lead to the production of a player or two worthy of selling their skills in Europe. But as of yet, this is not the case. Except for the player Cong Vinh last year, the members of the Vietnamese national team are solely plying their trade here in South-East Asia.
A quick look at the FIFA world rankings gives a hint as to why. Vietnam ranks a lowly 118th, below such titans of the world game as the Cape Verde Islands and Yemen. The highest ranked team in the region is Thailand at 105, who actually sit one position above a North Korean outfit likely to be on the receiving end of at least one annihilation this summer in South Africa. Singapore are next up, placed 127th, with Cambodia and Laos bringing up the rear in 171st and 174th respectively.
A Matter of Size?
Height is often given as a reason for why Asian players can’t be successful, preventing this region from producing the next Peter Crouch or an imposing centre back such as Lucio of Brazil, but given the success of Ji-Sung Park and Hidetoshi Nakata in recent times, that factor can also be discounted. Another excuse is the climate and the heat, but considering the strength of South American teams since the dawn of the World Cup, we can safely toss that one out of the window. So what is it? Certainly facilities have to be taken into account: these are countries which do not have the millions and billions needed to invest in the best of the best in the football world. And yet, it’s also hardly likely that the likes of Honduras and North Korea, who will be competing in South Africa this summer, have the facilities of the European and South American heavyweights either. The Vietnamese national team coach Henrique Calisto feels facilities are a factor, saying they are a “big problem”.
“If you look to China or South Korea, the facilities are a hundred times better than in Vietnam,” he explains, citing the stadiums, pitches and the standard of the pitches as examples.
He adds that money is not a problem for Vietnamese football, so hopefully better facilities will be on the cards soon. He also notes that in the last three years, teams of the likes of Arsenal and Benfica have hosted academies in Vietnam, which is a positive sign for football in the region.
The V League
The Vietnam V League seems to be acknowledged as the strongest in the region, and a quick scan of the league’s squads reveals players on the books from countries as far flung as Brazil, Argentina and Nigeria. Ranking fifth among Asian leagues, the tournament averages over 10,000 spectators a game, which suggests a certain robustness. It may not be a league that is going to set the world alight, but it should be more than capable enough of producing the talent required to enhance Vietnam’s standing on the world stage. Calisto thinks the V League has come on in leaps and bounds in the last five years, saying it could now be compared to a second tier league in Europe, something of a similar standard to Spain’s Segunda Division and Portugal’s Liga di Honra.
A look at the teams in the Asian qualifying region shows that there are some solid outfits capable of upsetting anyone in the world game on their day, but there is no perennial colossus of world football to strike fear into the hearts of their rivals. The likes of Japan, South Korea and Australia would certainly be hard to beat, but does that sound more unlikely for any of the local teams than minnows Luxembourg beating Switzerland 2-1, away from home, during qualifying for South Africa? Luxembourg ranks even with Singapore at 127th in the FIFA rankings, Switzerland lie in 26th, well ahead of both South Korea and Japan. Outside of those big three, the teams in Asia show nothing outside of a few World Cup appearances of ever doing anything on the world stage. These are the teams that Calisto sees Vietnam now being able to take on. He wants Vietnam to be able to compete with and win against countries from the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.
The European Factor
For that to happen, it would seem they need to start getting some of their players to Europe to compete in the best leagues in the world. The rise of Australia, Japan and South Korea as factors in the world game can be correlated to their players starting to play in the biggest leagues against the best competition. Calisto sees some potential in his current squad to make it in Europe. Last August winger/striker and national hero Cong Vinh signed with Portuguese first division side Leixoes for six months, and although he didn’t set the world on fire, he made appearances in the first team and scored a couple of goals, showing Vietnamese players can make it in Europe.
Goalkeeper Bui Tan Truong signed a record deal to make him the most expensive goalkeeper in V League history in March, and is highly rated by his national coach, who said Truong has the potential to be the “best goalkeeper ever in Vietnam”. He also feels that Truong has the skills and height to be able to play in Europe. Another name to watch out for is 21-year-old Nguyen Trong Hoang who Calisto describes as a “creative midfielder who with the right coaching could be one of the best players in Vietnamese footballing history.”
Although these players may not make it to Europe, the fact their Portuguese coach thinks they have the ability to is a good sign for the future.
Mind Over Body
Calisto feels the most important thing going forward is the mental side of the game: he says getting into the physical shape to be able to play is not a problem.
“Understanding the methods, the tactics and the psychology,” he says, “are the things to improve going forward.” He wants his team to have “intelligence in movement”, to think about what they will do when they’re both on and off the ball, and to “make good decisions quickly.” Calisto also thinks coaching in the region needs to improve and that “to be a coach it is not enough to be an old player. You must study.” He points out the improvement of the Portuguese national side, which came after the qualifications needed to become a coach at the higher levels required much more extensive study. He also lauds Da Nang coach Le Huynh Duc as part of the “new generation” of coaches with a “new mentality” who will take Vietnamese football forward. So, how soon will it be before one of the teams in South-East Asia can contend for a World Cup spot?
Calisto thinks it will be “at least ten years” and that the Vietnamese team needs to prove itself against teams from Europe and the Middle East before they start thinking of World Cup qualification. His aim is to bring consistency to the Vietnamese game and one of his goals is “to win the next Suzuki Cup or at the very least make the finals”, and to see the U-23 team go one step further and win at the next SEA Games. Vietnamese football and the game in the region in general has taken a huge leap, but it will need to take an equally big or bigger jump to get a whiff of making it to the world stage.