Vietnam entered the final of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup on the back of some stellar performances from the likes of Nguyen Quang Hai and Nguyen Anh Duc among others. However, whilst the more flashy players stole the limelight, their captain Que Ngoc Hai remained in the shadows, orchestrating a rendezvous with destiny.
Ngoc Hai entered the tournament as the vice-captain of the Golden Dragons, deputizing for Nguyen Van Quyet. However, with the experienced campaigner failing to nail down a regular starting berth, the onus lay with Ngoc Hai to take control and guide a young Vietnam side.
The 25-year-old has taken to leadership like a fish to water, acting as a calming influence for the Golden Dragons at the back. However, this has not always been the case with Ngoc Hai, who was known to be quite a hothead in his early days.
The Tran Anh Khoa incident
One particular incident springs to mind, when he quite nearly ended the career of SHB Đà Nẵng midfielder Tran Anh Khoa with a truly horrific challenge.
The tackle left Anh Khoa on the sidelines for an extended period with a broken leg and severely damaged knee ligaments. Ngoc Hai was only shown a yellow at the time, but was subsequently suspended for six months.
So, how did the enforcer who was constantly embroiled in controversy in the early part of his career become such a key figure in the Golden Dragons’ set-up? What inspired such a change of heart in just three years’ time for the ‘Sergio Ramos of Vietnam’.
It remains unclear, but for the nation, it bodes well.
Leading from the front
The Sông Lam Nghệ An defender’s contributions have been understated in this tournament thus far. He was an important part of the Vietnamese backline that remained unblemished throughout the group stages.
While they have been tested since, Ngoc Hai has come out with flying colors. With 14 clearances and an equal number of interceptions across seven games, he has been a rock at the back for his side. However, what really stands out is his disciplined approach to defending.
The 25-year-old has had his fair share of disciplinary problems in the past, but he has put that behind him, picking up just a single yellow card in the competition thus far.
He has also committed just seven fouls – averaging one per game – which is incredible considering how prone he used to be to jump into challenges and get stuck in.
The numbers clearly indicate a matureness that wasn’t quite present a few years ago.
Sign of a true leader
Throughout the competition, Ngoc Hai has acted as a captain should. During his side’s game against Cambodia, after Nguyen Tien Linh’s opener, the skipper brought out a shirt of injured forward Nguyen Van Toan, paying tribute to the striker who had picked up an injury in training and was set to miss the entire tournament.
The gesture left Van Toan in tears and warmed the hearts of the Vietnamese fans.
That’s not the only time Ngoc Hai’s new-found sense of matureness and leadership came to the fore.
During Vietnam’s semifinal against the Philippines, a fan was seen breaking free of security and charging towards the players. While the guards did eventually catch up to him and take him down, forcefully dragging him away from the scene, Ngoc Hai took it upon himself to give the fan a moment to cherish.
Stepping up and giving him a hug, the skipper then proceeded to escort him away, receiving thunderous applause from the fans.
What’s next for Vietnam’s leader?
With the second leg of the final against Malaysia looming large, Ngoc Hai will look to inspire his side one last time as the Golden Dragons aim for just their second Suzuki Cup title.
Even if the team do come up short though, rest assured, the skipper will be there to pick them up, dust them down, and inspire them to go again.