FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan believes that the whole of Southeast Asia will be supporting Vietnam as they continue their improbable run at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.
Whilst not a betting man, I can only imagine what the pre-tournament odds were on Vietnam reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.
Two weeks and 32 matches into the tournament, there are now four challengers remaining.
Korea Republic, Qatar, Uzbekistan and… Vietnam. Yes, Vietnam.
The same Vietnam who have qualified for the AFC Asian Cup just once in the last 14 editions, and as co-hosts at that.
The same Vietnam who, even on the regional stage, have won the ASEAN Football Federation Championship (presently known as the Suzuki Cup) just once in ten attempts.
There is no doubting that Vietnamese are a proud footballing people who are fiercely competitive every time they take to the field but, at a continental level, few would argue that they are presently anything more than a mid-level team.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Vietnam – with a squad averaging 20.7 years of age – is are already one of Asia’s top four teams at this year’s AFC U-23 Championship.
That’s younger than Korea Republic (21.4 years average) and Uzbekistan (20.9 years average), although it is Qatar (19.3 years average) who can lay claim to being the most youthful of the semi-finalists.
?? coach Park Hang-seo:
"I want to present this win to all football fans in Vietnam….Before the match I told the players that our mission was not easy, but that we had the team spirit and the determination of the players who will never stop until the final whistle."#AFCU23 pic.twitter.com/JRJc7SvP4F
— Vietnam football (@soccervietnam) January 21, 2018
Even by making it out of the group stage, the Vietnamese – along with fellow quarter-finalist Malaysia – have already done enough to make ASEAN football very proud.
And following the brave Malaysians’ unfortunate elimination at the hands of the South Koreans, Vietnam remains Southeast Asia’s last hope of a stunning success in China.
For that, Park Hang-seo and his charges deserve the support of an entire region. And, chances are, their neighbours will not disappoint.
Even in Saturday’s quarter-final victory over Iraq – on penalties following a 3-3 extra-time draw – social media was awash with an outpouring of support for the Vietnamese. Many of which were from Malaysian fans who, mere hours before, had seen their own side fall to a heart-breaking defeat to the South Koreans.
No shortage of support for the Vietnamese
Southeast Asia has always been a curious region when it comes to football.
When it comes to tournaments like the AFF Suzuki Cup and Southeast Asian Games, the unbridled passion for one’s team leads to a rivalry so intense to the point that there can be genuine disdain for one another in the moment. But only in the moment.
Past events have shown that, in an event like what we are currently witnessing at the AFC U-23 Championship, that same passion is extended to any neighbouring country in support of the greater good that is the betterment of ASEAN football as a whole.
It cannot be denied that Vietnam’s superb run to the semi-finals has come as a huge boost for Southeast Asia.
When they take on Qatar in Changzhou on Tuesday afternoon, it is the duty of every fan from Cambodia to Timor-Leste to be rooting for the Vietnamese.
And, despite my previously-stated lack of interest in gambling, I’m willing to bet the whole of Southeast Asia will indeed be cheering them on.