Vietnam, one year on: From U-23 runners-up to AFC Asian Cup 2019

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at how far Vietnam have come in a year where they’ve gone from the AFC U-23 Championship final to AFC Asian Cup 2019.

It was only about 12 months ago when a side with relatively low expectations, guided by a coach barely two months into the job, caused a huge stir by overcoming a host of more-illustrious opponents to reach the final of the AFC U-23 Championship 2018 in China.

But when Park Hang-seo’s Vietnam kick off their AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign on January 8, it is unlikely that any opposition side will be underestimating them.

In the span of a year, the Golden Dragons have emerged to assert themselves as one of the up-and-coming teams in the continent and, most recently, the best side in Southeast Asia following their triumphant AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 campaign.

To put it simply, Vietnam started 2018 by seeing off the likes of Australia, Iraq and Qatar to finish runners-up at the AFC U-23 Championship, falling only to a heartbreaking 120th-minute strike by Uzbekistan’s Andrey Sidorov.

They then backed it up in the second half of the year by finishing fourth at Asian Games 2018, which included beating Japan en route to finishing top of their group, followed by victories over Bahrain and Syria in the knockout round.

Then, they put an end to Thailand’s four-year dominance of ASEAN football by emerging as the Suzuki Cup champions earlier this month, with Park leading them to only their second title in the competition’s history.

The South Korean tactician, previously most famous for being Guus Hiddink’s assistant when Korea Republic finished fourth at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, certainly deserves plenty of credit.

In line with current trends, his preference for a flexible 3-4-3 system – a far from common tactical approach in Asia for now – has worked wonders and has elevated Vietnam to a modern outfit playing attractive and enterprising football.

Park’s faith in youth is something that also should not go unnoticed with 12 of his 23-man Suzuki Cup-winning having also been involved at the AFC U-23s and Asian Games, and in the running to make the trip to United Arab Emirates in January.

Some have questioned his decision not to include veterans Nguyen Van Quyet and Nguyen Anh Duc in his preliminary squad for the Asian Cup, but the former – despite his status as captain – did not start either leg of the Suzuki Cup final, while the latter only featured in the return encounter against Malaysia although he did net the winning goal.

Instead, Park will now be looking to the likes of Nguyen Quang Hai, Doan Van Hau and Tran Dinh Trong to lead the way forward.

As with all golden generations, there is an element of good fortune involved with a whole batch of talented prospects emerging at the same time.

However, as the Portugal side boasting Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes proved, that does not automatically equate to success and silverware.

Considering Vietnam’s current golden generation are all in their early 20s, perhaps aiming to go far at Asian Cup 2019 has come one or two tournaments too soon.

Still, with the new format of the competition meaning the four-best third-placed teams also qualify for the Round of 16, there is no reason why the Vietnamese should not be at least aiming to get out of a group also consisting of Iran, Iraq and Yemen.

Sterner tests will then await them but given the determination and endeavour they have shown over the past 12 months, a host of quality youngsters, and a forward-thinking coach at the helm, there is no reason why Vietnam cannot claim a few scalps along the way.

And that would certainly bring a far greater cheer to the passionate Vietnamese fans than the one that was delivered by the U-23s exactly one year ago.