Coach Park has made Vietnam a true team

By Steve Darby   January 16, 2023 | 07:25 pm PT
I am writing this before the second leg of the 2022 AFF Cup final as I don’t want the result of this one game to dictate the legacy of Coach Park Hang-seo.

I think he has done a wonderful job. Not just because of the winning of games and titles but for the manner he has done it in, and also how he has changed Vietnam football.

Firstly he has survived the politics of coaching football in Vietnam. It is not easy for a foreigner to work in Vietnam. He understands the culture of the country, examples being the importance of Tet and the importance of family to a Vietnamese player. Also you have to manage the corruption in Vietnamese football and don't let anyone say there is no corruption.

More importantly he has managed to survive two major obstacles for a foreign coach. The first is the negative media. No matter what the result of a game a journalist will ask "how can Vietnam get better?", "who made mistakes?", "why didn't we score more goals?" Some journalists are never happy and often start their questions with "people are saying," who are these people? They never name them. This negative media in turns influences the opinions of fans. You only have to read social media to realize the job is very difficult, some fans are either never happy or have no idea about football.

The second big difficulty for a foreigner is interference from administrators. I know this from personal experience of working in Vietnam, when I had a VFF technical director criticize my tactics in the media, despite the women's football team never losing a game! Or even more so I had a team manager try to change the Vietnam team in the dressing room before the SEA Games final! Luckily I was backed by the then VFF President Mr. Nguyen Trong Hy. That is the reason that many players like foreign coaches as the local coach gets far more pressure. As in simple terms the foreigner can walk away from the job. I think the VFF has matured considerably and is far more professional now and leave the team to the coach.

Coach Park Hang-seo. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Coach Park Hang-seo during a training session with the Vietnam's national team. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

So as I said, forget the trophies and wins, what Coach Park has done has made Vietnam a team. Previously the team were usually centered around a star player such as Hong Son, Huynh Duc or Le Cong Vinh. But now they are a true team. They still have quality players such as Hoang Duc and Hung Dung but they work as a team and do not just rely on stars.

Vietnam have a definite playing style, based on a strong defense and quick counter-attacking and this has proved successful at ASEAN level but also massively improved the results at the Asian level. Coach Park realized that if Vietnam attacked naively they would lose by big demoralizing score to the Asian giants such as Japan or Saudi. Now Vietnam have "closed the gap" on the big nations and are well respected in international football.

If you gamble and take more risks especially against the bigger teams then the risk is getting a large defeat. What happens then? The media calls for the coach to be sacked and the administration panic and change coach. If you take risks you need creative players. Is Quang Hai good enough for a free role? Also how many strikers do Vietnam have as most of the V league have African strikers who are often no better than the Vietnamese, just bigger! The role of the foreigner is a key issue for Vietnam football.

No team win every game and I think Vietnam have achieved great results by being organized and disciplined. Park has developed an on field discipline. You don't see Vietnam players having big fights on the pitch and they have also reduced the number of fouls committed. This is essential at the highest level as a team cannot afford to get red and yellow cards and also give away cheap free kicks to the opposition.

I have never met coach Park personally, so I don't know what he is like. But as an outsider it appears he has both the respect and the support of the most important people, the players. They appear to be playing for him and the team have a massive work rate now. Also I have never heard players criticize him. That is very important for a coach.

I have no idea what's next for coach Park, I will be interested in who succeeds him. Logically a Vietnamese assistant should have been groomed. But as I said before it is even tougher for locals as they can read the media and understand comments! I think there is an excellent coach in the country, who has both international experience and understands the Vietnamese culture. That is Kiatasuk (Zico).

Vietnam must think of the next important targets, the Asian Cup and World Cup 2026 qualifying. Vietnam (and Thailand) must treat AFF as a development step and reach for the big targets.

*Steve Darby, 68, used to coach the national teams of Bahrain, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam's women's national team. He also led leading clubs in Malaysia, Singapore and India.

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