Fast, technically impressive and aggressive: Vietnam did Southeast Asia proud in their opening match of the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
Almost 7,000 fans at Cheonan Stadium in South Korea, most of them Vietnamese, were delighted with a performance that left the Asian team disappointed to draw 0-0. It should not be forgotten that this was the country’s first ever game at an outdoor FIFA tournament.
Ahead of the tournament’s kick-off, many bookmakers had Vietnam as the 23rd most likely to lift the trophy at Suwon World Cup Stadium. There are only 24 teams in the competition with only Vanuatu offering longer odds. On this form, Vietnam have a real chance of being one of the 16 who progress to the second round.
Heading into the opening game, there were no concerns about the team’s technique, all who have even a passing familiarity with the country have known for some time that there is excellent ability. Vietnam has been producing good football players for some time.
In fact, the country has been doing more than that. Without much fuss or fanfare, Hanoi has been developing a youth development system that is already bearing fruit. Academies such as the one run by V-League team Hoang Ahn Gia Lai – one recent Under-23 international featured nine players from the club – have been working away quietly. There are others and the success of the team that qualified for the Under 20 World Cup should serve as vindication of those efforts as well as incentive to do more.
There were also no concerns about fitness,that is in the past. The team has worked hard and after training camps in Germany, and the hiring of a German fitness expert, there was no doubt that this was a team that would keep going until the end. Korea in May offers a pleasant playing environment and this saw a fit team pushing forward.
— Football24/7 (@Foet247Oceania) May 22, 2017
There were concerns perhaps that there would be a little too much respect given to New Zealand. That has been the issue in the past for Southeast Asian teams on the rare occasion that they reach the international stage.
While in terms of technique and speed, Vietnam were always going to have the edge on their opponents, would they play with the confidence necessary? Would they take the game to the All Whites and play the way they wanted to play?
The answer was a resounding yes. Vietnam attacked from the start, putting the Kiwis on the backfoot. Despite missing influential defensive midfielder Bui Tien Dung, a player who often sets the tempo of the team, this was a disciplined performance with the Asians looking to get forward as much a possible while pressing their opponents to deny them space.
Doan Van Thu and Ho Tan Tai pushed up to support the attack whenever possible, Dinh Thanh Binh, the team’s number ten, took a little time to settle but once he did, he look at ease on the world stage, pushing and probing. His turn in the area in the first half to lose his marker was a thing of beauty even if the shot was dragged wide.
And that was the only thing that was missing. Fans and media at home lamented the lack of clinical finishing. The team had chances but did not take them. When it comes to the World Cup, that can be the difference between getting the first flight home or staying right until the end.
Vietnam's technical ability & speed extremely impressive but still can't find the net against New Zealand. #U20WC
— Ned Zelic (@NedZelic) May 22, 2017
But the killer instinct takes time to develop. It is an issue that many an Asian nation has had on the world stage and some with more experience than Vietnam still struggle with.
It can’t be expected that in the first game of a first-ever World Cup appearance that these young golden stars would have the golden knack of turning half-chances into goals. It is to be hoped, and eventually, expected that the attackers will hone their skills to help a good team become very good but it takes time.
For now, Vietnam should be proud. They took the game to their opponents, kept a clean sheet, were disciplined with and without the ball, keeping their shape until the end and creating chances until the end. The only thing missing was a goal.
But it was a good start. France come next. The European champions. This is the kind of test that should excite rather than scare. Nobody expects Vietnam to get anything against a very talented team. The important thing is that, once again, Vietnam try to play their game and are not overawed and do not give their opponents too much respect.
Vietnam deserve to be here. They showed that against New Zealand. The goals will come, either in Korea or in the future, but for now fans should be proud. Not only that but the whole of Southeast Asia should be proud of this talented team from which there is surely more to come.