It may not have been the fairy-tale ending that Vietnam were dreaming of but John Duerden believes Vietnam have won the real prize at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.
While on the balance of play, Uzbekistan deserved to win the final of the 2018 AFC U-23 Championships with a 2-1 win over Vietnam, it was a defeat that was crueller on the Southeast Asians than the arctic conditions.
Andrey Sidorov came off the bench after 118 minutes of tense and tight football and found time to volley home the winning goal to provoke tears on both sides, though of a very different kind.
Uzbekistan’s title-winning campaign has been overlooked a little in comparison to the excitement that was rising in Vietnam. The story of a nation that has been on the brink of World Cup qualification for a number of years has not gripped as much as the journey of Vietnam, a team cheered on by millions of people on the streets of the country as well as the rest of the ASEAN region.
The men in red gave everything but in the end, they could not take the final step and there is nothing wrong with that.
— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) January 27, 2018
It is safe to say that Vietnam’s players have about as much experience of playing in the snow as they have in major finals. Go to the south of the country in wintertime and locals, sitting outside in the sunshine drinking the local beer, will warn you against heading north to Hanoi, too cold, they say. Make the trip anyway and the daily temperatures of around 16 degrees are pleasant. It’s all relative.
So the final of the 2018 AFC U-23 Championships with Uzbekistan was a tough experience for all – players, referee, fans and those volunteers who cleared the pitch at half-time.
But it is about experience. The past weeks have been a fantastic journey for the players and the country. It is no secret that there are often tensions between the south and the north of the long s-shaped country but all were united in their support for the Golden Stars.
Colleagues and friends talked in wonder of people in markets, restaurants and buses talking excitedly about football, people who had never had any interest in the game. Officials at the Vietnam Football Federation have talked about already having more conversations with the corporate sector as the benefits of getting involved with the sport that really can bring the country together have never been more apparent.
No game played here but ⚽️ drives the entire nation together. Players gave everything. Applaud Vietnam ?? for going this far, and so close. Congrats to Uzbekistan ?? pic.twitter.com/3XTKSU1aX2
— Benjamin Tan (@footballbentan) January 27, 2018
It is also expected that this success will inspire more kids to start kicking a ball around. Of the masses that were out in the streets and in stadiums, there will be more than a few who fall in love with the beautiful game and are inspired to get involved. For the players, there will be offers from overseas and they will need to keep their heads and composure in making career decisions as they have done on the pitch in the past couple of weeks.
Ultimately, Vietnam winning the trophy would have made a good story great but didn’t matter that much. The main prize had already been won. The legacy of this team will be all the above – the bringing together of a country and all the other benefits – and something else. Vietnam have erased any semblance of the inferiority complex that ASEAN teams have had when taking on so-called bigger and better nations on the pitch.
In the past, there have been occasions when there was satisfaction at not getting beat too badly when playing the big boys. The unspoken objective was to show a little skill, play reasonably well but avoid losing too heavily and returning home with heads, not exactly held high, at least unbowed.
??Vietnam U23 can hold their heads high, what an amazing journey from this young group of players. The future of ??football is certainly a bright one & congratulations to Uzbekistan ??on a fine tournament. #AFCU23 #vietfootball
— Vietnam football (@soccervietnam) January 27, 2018
No longer. Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, have demonstrated that ASEAN players are not inferior to those from the west and east. Nobody is expecting victories at every meeting in the future, but the belief that victory is possible can be there. Vietnam still has some way to go to catch up with the likes of Japan, Korea Republic and the rest but the gap is not as big as before and it is not as big as the Vietnamese thought it was. Now teams from this region will know they can win, the results do not have to be a foregone conclusion.
This is the real trophy to take home from China. It is one that shines with confidence and self-belief and it is one that all Southeast Asia can share.