FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan believes the future looks exceedingly bright for Vietnam despite Thursday’s quarter-final exit at AFC Asian Cup 2019.
There was no shortage of talk even before a ball had been kicked at AFC Asian Cup 2019.
Talk over a possible golden generation that first showed their potential with a runners-up finish at last January’s AFC U-23 Championship.
Highlights – Vietnam vs Japan
Talk about a rising star in Nguyen Quang Hai who continued to be the brightest spark among many other promising youngsters that finished fourth at Asian Games 2018.
Talk about a youthful side with maturity beyond their years that ended a decade-long wait to reclaim their status as Southeast Asian champions by winning AFF Suzuki Cup 2018.
And, after all the talk, Vietnam walked the walk over the past three weeks in United Arab Emirates.
On Thursday evening, their Asian Cup dream came to an end with a narrow 1-0 defeat to continental giants Japan, which only came courtesy of a VAR (Video Assistant Referee)-assisted penalty that was converted by Ritsu Doan.
Sure, on the balance of play, Japan were probably a couple of tiers superior to the Vietnamese, with the suspicion that they could have gone up a few gears had it been necessary.
But, on the scoreboard, the only difference between a side that has played at the past six FIFA World Cups and one that was only appearing at the Asian Cup for the second time (excluding their participation as South Vietnam in 1956 and 1960) was a solitary spot-kick.
Granted, there was a touch of fortune in the way Vietnam reached the Round of 16 as the fourth and final third-placed team, pipping Lebanon only by virtue of a superior disciplinary record.
Nonetheless, the Vietnamese deserve credit for even being in a position to challenge having been drawn in a tough group also consisting of hot favourites Iran, 2007 winners Iraq and Yemen.
The UNSUNG HEROES of Vietnam’s AFC Asian Cup 2019 journey
In the two games they were expected to lose, Park Hang-seo’s charges gave an excellent account of themselves – twice taking the lead against Iraq before losing in heartbreaking fashion to Ali Adnan’s last-gasp freekick, which was followed by a creditable 2-0 defeat to the Iranians.
Then came the one Group C match they were expected to win and they duly got the job done by defeating Yemen 2-0.
In the Round of 16, they found themselves up against the surprise package of the tournament in Jordan, who – in contrast – been the first team to book their knockout round berth after upset victories over Australia and Syria.
Again, Vietnam belied the odds and took the game to the Jordanians, eventually prevailing 4-2 in the penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw.
Which brings us to Thursday’s glamour tie against Japan, who are yet to fire on all cylinders at the tournament but, with established Europe-based stars like Maya Yoshida, Yuya Osako and Yuto Nagatomo, would still have been heavily fancied to brush the Vietnamese aside.
Yet, it was not that straightforward for the Samurai Blue and their opponents deserved plenty of credit for that.
So, as Vietnam head home, they will be no shortage of talk once again but now, there is less speculation and more affirmation.
For the Vietnamese have proven that they belong on Asia’s biggest stage and what it takes to match some of the continent’s heaviest hitters.
Let the talk continue about how Park Hang-seo continues to get the best out of his talented young side.
Let the talk continue about how the likes of Nguyen Quang Hai, Nguyen Cong Phuong and Doan Van Hau could possibly be good enough to play in Europe in a few years’ time.
Let the talk continue about how Vietnam are – by far – the kings of Southeast Asia in this present moment.
Let the talk continue until Vietnam once again have to prove they belong on a bigger stage, which we will not have long to wait for.
September 5, when the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup gets underway.