“Today I cried for him, I’m just so terribly sad and sorry”

That was the burden carried by young midfielder Luong Xuan Truong as he spoke exclusively with FOX Sports Asia just moments after Vietnam had crashed out of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup.

The player he was referring to was retiring captain Le Cong Vinh, who had earlier beaten a solemn path to the team bus, arms draped around two teammates with tears streaming down his face.

It was a scene repeated across the entire team – players and staff both – with not a single player walking alone.

Off into the Hanoi evening, they trudged; arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder, most weeping openly as the reality that a tournament in which they had sparkled had somehow come to an end against an Indonesian team who they had outplayed across both legs. 

“We did everything to win the game but we didn’t get the luck today.

“For sure, we were the better team; we had so many chances but this is football and we didn’t take those chances – I just feel very sorry and sad now.

“I feel so sorry for Le Cong Vinh and the others who will leave the team that we couldn’t finish this journey together,” Truong told FOX Sports Asia, tears welling up in his eyes too.

In the ‘modern era’ of football where players are more often interested in their own bank accounts and image rights, it was refreshing – if heartbreaking – to see just how heavily this loss had struck the team.

Along with Thailand, Vietnam had been the clear standout at the Suzuki Cup and the competition is poorer for the fact that they will not be in what would have been the ‘dream’ final.

Even the visiting team admitted that they hadn’t ‘deserved’ to win this tie with one player telling FOX Sports Asia post-match that Vietnam had been the better side across both legs. 

That much was fairly evident to anyone who had witnessed those contests, with a vibrant Golden Stars team dominating possession, moving the ball with pace and precision both laterally and vertically and carving out chance after chance after chance.

The fact that they had to play more than 45 of the second leg with a central defender, Que Ngoc Hai, in goal, made it all the more remarkable.

The makeshift keeper produced some decent saves but also, crucially, conceded the penalty – with an attempted save that showed he forgot he was able to actually use his hands – that ultimately cost Vietnam the match.

Still, though, they continued to attack, at times playing with a five-man frontline and with Hai sweeping so high that you could have been confused for thinking this was futsal rather than football.

Credit where it is due though to a resolute Indonesian team – beset by multiple problems of their own –for having reached the final against all odds but there’s no question for most neutrals across the region that the ‘better’ team had not qualified for the showpiece moment of the competition.

As Truong noted, that’s football.

The fact though that at the end of this most extraordinary of matches the team was loudly cheered off the pitch showed just how impressive a performance it had been.

Indeed, that was the hallmark of the team across the tournament virtually from the opening whistle in Yangon where they shone in defeating the Group B host nation.

Switching between a 4-3-3 that they employed in the first couple of group stage matches and the more aggressive 4-4-2 that they used against Indonesia, there was a tactical fluidity to the team’s play with a compact and well-organised defensive base and a lively, dynamic presence, when pushing forward.

The fullbacks are vastly different presences; with the older Tranh Dinh Dong sitting tighter on the right whilst the electrifying Vu Van Thanh continued to raid forward from the left, often pushing centrally where he was a constant threat.

A couple of different central defensive and midfield partnerships were used but with Truong Ding Luat also set to conclude his international career at the age of 33 it’s in central defence where the most pressing issues lay.

That’s not the case in midfield where Truong is a fine technician and with the team missing one of his close friends and fellow HAGL graduate in the injured Nguyen Tuan Anh, Vietnam have an outstanding base to build around for the next decade.

Another couple of HAGL stars in little-used forward Nguyen Cong Phuong and Nguyen Van Toan – along with Nguyen Van Quyet – are now likely to be the main goal threats for a team which will have to recast its identity with the retirement of the talismanic Vinh.

What is clear though is that these outstanding young talents will be richer for the experience of this Suzuki Cup and they enter next year’s SEA Games as almost certainly the team to beat.

Further into the distance, it may be but with the outstanding work being done at the grassroots level – arguably better than any nation in the region – this is a Vietnam team on the rise.

It’s one with a clear identity, unlike many others in the region, one with some of the finest technicians anywhere in Southeast Asia and now with their own tragic history to build on; make no mistake this current incarnation of the Golden Stars has the potential to dominate regional football for many years to come – despite the fact they will be absent from this year’s showpiece match.

Scott McIntyre

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