the foot­ball fac­tory

Viet­nam’s re­cent suc­cesses on the world stage are tes­ta­ment to an en­light­ened de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme that has pro­duced a golden gen­er­a­tion of young stars.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - words b y dun­can for­gan

Viet­nam’s ris­ing stars.

“It’s like a dream,” cries sup­porter Vuong Tuan as he raises yet another glass of bia hoi, Viet­nam’s fa­mously cheap fresh-brewed lager, to toast the suc­cess of the na­tion’s un­der-23 foot­ball side with his friends.

The seat of govern­ment and the cra­dle of Viet­namese her­itage, Hanoi is known more for its el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­ture and be­guil­ing lakes than it is for its par­ties. As the vic­to­ries mounted up in the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion (AFC) Cup in Jan­uary this year, denizens of the 1,000-year-old cap­i­tal be­lied the city’s con­ser­va­tive rep­u­ta­tion to let their hair down.

The coun­try’s teem­ing ma­jor cities are rarely se­date af­fairs any­way. But the noise rose to a crescendo as the team fell just short in the fi­nal of the com­pe­ti­tion.

Foot­ball fever spread like wild­fire as the vic­to­ries mounted up. The team fol­lowed up de­feat against South Korea in the first game with wins against Aus­tralia, then Iraq and Qatar. Dur­ing the matches, the coun­try fell un­nat­u­rally quiet. Traf­fic-clogged streets emp­tied and sup­port­ers shifted to cof­fee shops, bars and even cine­mas of­fer­ing spe­cial screen­ings of the games to urge the team through the com­pe­ti­tion.

As snow show­ers car­peted the pitch at the Changzhou Olympic Cen­tre in China where the fi­nal was held, Viet­nam’s dreams of glory were smoth­ered— Uzbek­istan nab­bing vic­tory with a win­ner in the last minute of ex­tra time.

De­feat, though, didn’t stop fes­tiv­i­ties. By the time of the fi­nal, mem­bers of the side had al­ready been granted the sta­tus of he­roes. Con­grat­u­la­tions flooded in from fig­ures such as prime min­is­ter Nguyen Xuan Phuc, while bud­get car­rier Vi­et­jet de­cided to re­ward the play­ers with a cel­e­bra­tory dis­play by bikini-clad mod­els on the flight back to Hanoi—a stunt that earned it a fi­nan­cial penalty as well as de­ri­sion from Viet­nam’s online community.

While tears flowed freely at the dra­matic fi­nal loss, the over­all mood re­mained one of ela­tion. Thou­sands of Viet­namese in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other pop­u­la­tion cen­tres cre­ated a deaf­en­ing sym­phony us­ing mo­tor­bike horns and kitchen uten­sils. Such ela­tion was easy to un­der­stand given how se­ri­ously Viet­nam takes its rare in­ter­na­tional sport­ing suc­cesses.

“Peo­ple felt it was quite a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment,” says Mai Huyen Chi, a Ho Chi Minh City-based writer and film­maker. “It was a gleam of pa­tri­otic hope with no strings at­tached. That’s im­por­tant, as things haven’t been to­tally great in the coun­try over the last few years. There’s been a lot of un­der­ly­ing dis­con­tent. The play­ers be­came he­roes be­cause it was as if they helped re­in­force our dig­nity as Viet­namese.”

The seeds of this suc­cess—and the cat­a­lyst for a turn­around in for­tunes that has ex­perts tip­ping Viet­nam to be a ma­jor foot­ball force in the re­gion for years to come— were sown in a some­what more re­strained en­vi­ron­ment.

Blessed with moun­tains, lakes and thick jungle in­hab­ited by bears, pri­mates and the odd en­dan­gered ele­phant, Gia Lai is the largest prov­ince in Viet­nam’s Cen­tral High­lands. Known for its nat­u­ral beauty as well

as tra­di­tional fes­ti­vals such as an an­nual rit­ual where a buf­falo is stabbed to death, the re­mote re­gion has hith­erto been less fa­mous as a hot­bed of sport­ing po­ten­tial.

But it is here in this moun­tain idyll that one of Asia’s most pro­duc­tive foot­ball fac­to­ries—the Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Ar­se­nal JMG Academy—has worked its alchemy on the Viet­nam na­tional side.

In fact, it’s hard to be­lieve that just six years ago, Viet­namese foot­ball was fac­ing a cri­sis borne of cor­rup­tion and greed. The na­tion’s top-flight V League was un­der siege, with many of its top clubs threat­ened with clo­sure due to fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment. At the same time, busi­ness­man Nguyen Duc Kien, then boss of the Viet­nam Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion, was sen­tenced to 30 years in prison for tax eva­sion and il­le­gal trad­ing. High in the Cen­tral High­lands, how­ever, the seeds of re­cov­ery were be­ing sown even as the coun­try’s top league de­scended into the mire.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion among English giants Ar­se­nal, French foot­ball school JMG Academy and Viet­namese con­glom­er­ate Hoang Anh Gia Lai, which owns V League side Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC, the academy has amassed some im­pres­sive stats since launch­ing with the back­ing of the VFF in 2007.

When the Viet­nam un­der-23 team de­feated Malaysia 3-0 in 2017, nine of the Viet­namese squad—a full half of the group—had come through the academy ranks. The se­nior na­tional side’s young core, from striker Nguyen Cong Phuong—known as Messi Viet­nam due to a tricky play­ing style rem­i­nis­cent of the Ar­gen­tinean su­per­star —to full back Vu Van Thanh and mid­fielder and cap­tain of the un­der-23 side Luang Xuan Truong, was forged at the fa­cil­ity and is ex­pected to in­spire the team for years to come. Viet­nam’s im­pres­sive progress, mean­while, was un­der­lined when it was South­east Asia’s only rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the FIFA Un­der-20 World Cup in South Korea last year.

“I be­lieve that Viet­nam cer­tainly has the play­ers to be the dom­i­nant force in South­east Asia and a na­tion that should aim to con­sis­tently qual­ify for and reach the lat­ter stages of Asian com­pe­ti­tions and qual­ify for the World Cup,” says Fox Sports Asia pun­dit Scott McIn­tyre. “Over the past half-decade plus, the work that not only HAGL, but also Hanoi FC and oth­ers have done through ex­cep­tional youth de­vel­op­ment, has cre­ated this lead­ing gen­er­a­tion of play­ers.”

Lo­cated just out­side the city of Pleiku, the HAGLArse­nal JMG Academy is sit­u­ated at an el­e­va­tion of just un­der 1,000m. The cool cli­mate pro­vides ideal train­ing con­di­tions, while man­i­cured pitches, a swim­ming pool and im­mac­u­late res­i­den­tial vil­las for the young play­ers give the fa­cil­ity the feel of a sports-fo­cused re­sort.

For the ini­tial re­cruit­ment drive, thou­sands of hope­fuls trav­elled to the Cen­tral High­lands from all over Viet­nam to try out for the academy. From these, a se­lect group of around 30 made the grade. Ju­di­cious prun­ing— each year the in­take is kept in­ten­tion­ally stingy—as well

It’s hard to be­lieve that just six years ago, Viet­namese foot­ball was fac­ing a cri­sis

borne of cor­rup­tion and greed. High in the

Cen­tral High­lands, how­ever, the seeds of re­cov­ery were be­ing sown even as the coun­try’s top league de­scended into the mire.

as rig­or­ous fo­cus on ball skills, strength­en­ing and fit­ness has paid no­tice­able div­i­dends.

While small play­ers such as Nguyen Cong Phuong and oth­ers will never be phys­i­cal beasts, daily gym ses­sions have built strength and stamina, and re­lent­less work on tech­nique has shaped academy grad­u­ates into some of Viet­nam’s most po­tent foot­balling weapons.

“The academy has given us [the play­ers] the right mind­set, the phys­i­cal strength and the de­ter­mi­na­tion to be a real force in the re­gion,” adds Cong Phuong. “All of us hope and be­lieve that Viet­nam will be­come a strong foot­ball coun­try in the future.”

There’s plenty of ev­i­dence it will do so. Other acad­e­mies and ma­jor youth de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tives have fol­lowed in the wake of the HAGL-Ar­se­nal JMG Academy. No­table among these is the snap­pily ti­tled Pro­mo­tion Fund of Viet­namese Foot­ball Tal­ents Foot­ball Club [PVF for short], which has links with Manch­ester United and last year an­nounced the ap­point­ment of for­mer United winger Ryan Giggs as a di­rec­tor re­spon­si­ble for train­ing and eval­u­at­ing se­nior coaches.

V League clubs have also helped shoul­der the bur­den of tak­ing the beau­ti­ful game—by far the most pop­u­lar sport in the coun­try—up a level in Viet­nam. Pa­tience, not al­ways a commodity val­ued by clubs hun­gry for short­term suc­cess, is be­ing de­ployed to help build sta­bil­ity and con­sis­tency and grow stronger roots.

Rather than turn­ing to ex­pen­sive for­eign man­agers, lo­cal coaches are be­ing handed long-term po­si­tions. Ben­e­fit­ing the game also are en­light­ened youth poli­cies at var­i­ous clubs, which have pro­duced stars such as Nguyen Quang Hai of Hanoi FC, Viet­nam’s top scorer at the AFC Cup.

The rosy pic­ture is a far cry from how things were just a few years ago. Al­though Viet­nam’s se­nior na­tional side won the ASEAN Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Cup in 2008, the na­tional game en­dured an an­nus hor­ri­bilis in 2012. The year was a stinker for Viet­nam in gen­eral amid an eco­nomic cri­sis and a prop­erty crash. The coun­try’s foot­ball for­tunes too slid markedly, with many clubs fac­ing fi­nan­cial and spon­sor­ship dif­fi­cul­ties and hav­ing to with­draw from the V League. A pe­riod of re­trench­ment fol­lowed, and clubs be­gan to steady the ship with spon­sors re­turn­ing as the coun­try’s econ­omy re­cov­ered. All the while, the VFF’s far­sighted pol­icy to­wards youth de­vel­op­ment was be­gin­ning to bear fruit high up in the Cen­tral High­lands.

One im­port who is buck­ing the pre­vail­ing trend of lo­cal­i­sa­tion in Viet­namese foot­ball is Hang Seo Park, the South Korean coach of the un­der-23 side and the se­nior na­tional side. Al­though his ap­point­ment in 2017 was greeted with some scep­ti­cism—the man­ager ar­riv­ing from a mi­nor-league team in his home coun­try—his achieve­ment in steer­ing the un­der-23 side to the AFC Cup fi­nal has bur­nished his rep­u­ta­tion sig­nif­i­cantly.

Ob­servers praise the height­ened skill, tech­nique and strength that state-of-the-art acad­e­mies such as

HAGL-Ar­se­nal JMG and PVF have be­stowed on the Viet­namese side. Tra­di­tion­ally though, it has been a be­lief among many—even Viet­namese sup­port­ers—that the team is held back by the short stature of the play­ers.

Park, who was as­sis­tant man­ager to the South Korean na­tional team un­der Dutch boss Guus Hid­dink dur­ing the 2002 World Cup, says that lack of height is immaterial and be­lieves that the Viet­namese side has what it takes to es­tab­lish it­self as the pre-em­i­nent force in South­east Asia.

“Viet­namese play­ers have their own strong points and tech­niques to com­pen­sate for what they lack in strength and size,” he said in an in­ter­view with Viet­namese news por­tal VN Ex­press in the af­ter­math of the AFC Cup. “Small play­ers are quicker. Viet­namese play­ers are smart. They can eas­ily un­der­stand my in­struc­tions and adapt to them very quickly.”

Al­though the side’s suc­cess in China has earned Park ku­dos—Viet­namese me­dia have hailed him as a mir­a­cle worker—oth­ers are less en­am­oured by his style.

While crit­i­cal think­ing was in short sup­ply among Viet­namese fans dur­ing the run—hardly a shock given the emo­tions it stirred—de­trac­tors be­moaned the de­fen­sive strate­gies adopted by the coach. McIn­tyre says he be­lieves that the po­tency of Cong Phuong and other at­tack­ing play­ers had been blunted by a win-atall-costs men­tal­ity.

“All coaches should have been us­ing the tour­na­ment purely as a prepa­ra­tion for the com­ing edi­tions of the se­nior AFC Cup, with the fo­cus be­ing on de­vel­op­ment, ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent sys­tems and try­ing to play pos­i­tively,” says McIn­tyre. “From my point of view, Viet­nam was one of the few na­tions that did the op­po­site in try­ing purely and sim­ply to win their matches at what­ever cost pos­si­ble.

“This ap­proach is specif­i­cally wrong for this Viet­namese team, the bulk of whom came through [un­der a lo­cal coach] the U20 side that played a vastly dif­fer­ent brand of foot­ball that was far bet­ter suited to their skills. Those [skills] be­ing ex­cel­lent tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity, bril­liant close con­trol, a will­ing­ness to take de­fend­ers on and some ex­cel­lent cre­ativ­ity in the fi­nal third. In short, the strengths of the team are built around the at­tack­ing play­ers, not the de­fen­sive ones. Un­der Park though, what we got was prag­ma­tism and a re­luc­tance to let the at­tack­ing play­ers show their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

While Park’s cre­den­tials and ap­proach may be in ques­tion, no­body doubts the po­ten­tial of Viet­nam’s young play­ers.

In­deed, McIn­tyre says that “this gen­er­a­tion of play­ers are the best in terms of pure tech­nique any­where in South­east Asia and right up there with any across the con­ti­nent and be­yond”. Viet­nam has never qual­i­fied for the World Cup, but fans and an­a­lysts are watch­ing as Cong Phuong, Quang Hai, Xuan Truong and oth­ers aim to break that streak. Its next test will be the ASEAN Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Cup, start­ing in Novem­ber. Thai­land has dom­i­nated in re­cent years, but the un­der-23 suc­cess has raised hopes that Viet­nam can break the Thai stran­gle­hold.

“We can be a big team in the re­gion,” says Cong Phuong. “We are strong and we are de­ter­mined.”

The AFC Cup is gen­er­ally not re­garded as one of world foot­ball’s big-ticket events. And, as McIn­tyre points out, this year’s in­stal­ment was of even less sig­nif­i­cance as it was not in an Olympic cy­cle. What Viet­nam’s suc­cess proved, how­ever, was that its play­ers can ex­cel on the big stage against qual­ity op­po­si­tion. And that they have fer­vent sup­port whose pas­sion for their side is gen­uine and strong. At the rate the team is pro­gress­ing, there will be plenty more glory to toast with bia hoi in future.

The Viet­nam play­ers be­fore their fi­nal match with Uzbek­istan. Nguyen Cong Phuong wears shirt num­ber 10, Vu Van Than is num­ber 17 and Nguyen Quang Hai is num­ber 19. Fac­ing page: thou­sands of Viet­nam fans filled the 40,000-ca­pac­ity My Dinh Sta­dium in Hanoi to the brim, with thou­sands more spilling onto the pitch dur­ing a live tele­cast of the AFC U23 fi­nal between Viet­nam and Uzbek­istan.

The in­tense bat­tle between Viet­nam and Uzbek­istan was streamed live to a va­ri­ety of lo­ca­tions in Ho Chi Minh City.

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