Keep looking at the past and you'll stay behind: star footballer

By Hieu Luong   December 27, 2023 | 10:58 pm PT
Vietnam's star midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai sits down with VnExpress to talk about success, playing football in France and marriage.

Hai, 26, is one of the most prominent footballers in Vietnam, who first rose to stardom with a stellar performance at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship, where Vietnam finished runners-up.

He later became a key player for the national team and with them won the 2019 SEA Games gold medal and 2018 AFF Cup and advanced to the final qualifiers of the World Cup for the first time in the country's history.

In 2022 Hai wanted a new challenge and decided not to extend the contract with Hanoi FC and instead signed up for Pau FC in the French second tier for two years. But he could not adapt to the environment and lost his place in the team.

In the 2022-2023 season Hai played 13 games but only for 20 minutes each on average, and scored one goal.

He then played seven games for the reserve team, Pau B, in National 3, the fifth tier, and got a total of 579 minutes.

Hai agreed with Pau FC to terminate his contract one year early, and returned to Vietnam and signed an 18-month contract with V. League club Cong An Ha Noi (CAHN).

He was recently called up to the national team for the upcoming 2024 Asian Cup.

Half a year ago, you terminated your contract with Pau FC. What is the reason that you didn’t perform as expected there?

I feel satisfied because I faced challenges I had previously only imagined.

There were nights that I looked at the ceiling and asked myself why I was even there. I came to a team where I was the only Asian and it was a culture shock for me. After a while I learned to speak my mind, and to me that is maturity.

I also spoke a lot with head coach Didier Tholot. When I did not get to play, I talked to him to find out what I was lacking. Tholot was very straightforward and told me where to improve.

Where do you think you fell short in Ligue 2?

I think a part of it was my physique: I was too small for this league. But skill-wise, I made some improvements.

Quang Hai plays for Pau FC. Photo by Pau Fc

Nguyen Quang Hai plays for Pau FC. Photo by Pau Fc

Were there any other differences between Pau and other clubs you have played for?

Each training session there was a merciless battle. There were 30 players competing for 18 slots for each game. The preparation for a Ligue 2 match differed greatly from the V. League. Pau made great preparations in terms of nutrition and training. They analyzed every training session and made detailed evaluations of players to meet their tactical requirements.

Have you thought that if you had gone to a more culturally compatible country like Japan, things might have been different?

When I decided to go to France, I just thought I needed to step out [of my comfort zone] and experience something completely new. It was really interesting and I can see that the football world is so great and so vast.

But it seems like you still have not returned to your best form after coming back to play for CAHN. Did returning to the V. League make you lose motivation?

I went to France for a year but played little. That greatly affected my form. That was also the reason I terminated the contract.

I never lack motivation because, in my point of view, motivation comes from simply doing your best in the present. I'm not satisfied with what I have, and so I can't do anything else but to work harder. Football has ups and downs, but we must put in maximum effort.

With the second Asian Cup of your career ahead, what are your expectations?

Facing Japan right now will be quite memorable. The team have to work harder than usual and we have the chance to spring a surprise.

How do you feel about the new head coach of Vietnam?

In February 2023, while playing at Pau FC, I had the opportunity to meet coach [Philippe] Troussier. He is friendly.

When I worked with him in the team I found him very meticulous and enthusiastic. He cheers and encourages the players throughout practice. Not many coaches can do that.

Quang Hai played when Vietnam won 1-0 against Syria in a friendly match on June 20. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa

Nguyen Quang Hai in Vietnam's 1-0 win against Syria in a friendly match on June 20, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa

But in terms of results, Troussier's tactics are still debatable. How do the players feel about that?

No matter what happens, the team never lose solidarity and determination. These are what create the strengths of Vietnamese football. With that foundation, we only need a little bit more momentum to do extraordinary things.

It can’t be denied that the great success achieved under coach Park Hang-seo creates invisible pressures, not to mention the difficulty in adapting to Troussier's new style of play.

I don’t think so. I often forget yesterday's match to look forward to tomorrow's match. The future does not wait for anyone, so you have to work hard. If you keep looking back at the past, you will be left behind. I don't know what other people think, but saying it is difficult to adapt to a new playing style is not acceptable; what matters are the effort and will of the players.

Your personal life is about to change with your marriage to your girlfriend Chu Thanh Huyen. How did this decision come about?

I hope to receive blessings from everyone. We have experienced many different emotions and special moments together and feel that it is time to take the next step. Such a decision creates additional responsibility and new motivation for me.

Midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai (R) and girlfriend Chu Thanh Huyen in their proposal ceremony on Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Huyen

Midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai (R) and girlfriend Chu Thanh Huyen at their traditional proposal ceremony in Hanoi on Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Huyen

How will Quang Hai the family man be?

Definitely more responsible. I have been away from home since I was young, and so want to focus on my family as much as possible. When I first went to Pau FC I felt extremely lonely. All I did was practice and go home. Sometimes I would go for a walk around town to find peace of mind.

You speak a lot about determination. So how does a player with money and fame maintain professional discipline and composure while in the spotlight?

It is hard to measure what it means to be famous and have a lot of money. Therefore, I always try to keep myself as pure and simple as possible. I am now more mature as I have multi-dimensional views on things and feel responsible for creating more useful value.

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