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Sleepless nights: Vietnam coach talks about historic Women's World Cup qualification

By Lam Thoa, Minh Kha   February 11, 2022 | 10:00 pm PT
Mai Duc Chung says he had sleepless nights due to the immense pressure during Vietnam’s journey to secure their first Women’s World Cup qualification in an interview with VnExpress.

How did you get through the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup?

I lost five kilos due to the pressure before and during the games. Throughout my career, I have never faced such a challenging tournament. Many players on the team got Covid-19 during a training trip to Spain and they were stuck there. So we went to India for the tournament with only six players and five other members. Only three players were in good enough condition to train.

Therefore, after each session, I had to stay up all night and find a way to encourage the players. I did not sleep most nights and sometimes had one or two hours' sleep. I had an all-nighter before the final playoff against Taiwan. But as a coach, I could not give up because that would have ruined everything we had prepared for.

Which game do you think was the turning point for Vietnam?

It was the game against China in the quarterfinals. Though we lost 1-3, that game helped us with our preparations for the playoffs.

In that game I put all the key players on the bench as I wanted players who had just recovered from Covid to have match time and conserve others for the next games. I told the team to avoid injuries and committing fouls so that we would have the full squad available for the playoffs against Thailand and Taiwan.

Coach Mai Duc Chung in an interview with VnExpress at the Vietnam Football Federation headquarters on February 10, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Coach Mai Duc Chung in an interview with VnExpress at the Vietnam Football Federation headquarters in Hanoi on February 10, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

In India, you mentioned the possibility of pulling out of the tournament after many players got Covid. Please tell us more about it.

It is true I asked the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) to withdraw from the tournament because the situation at that moment was really tough. 16 players who were infected had to stay in Spain, while only six players could go to India and just three of them were fit. The tournament's regulations said if we did not have 13 players registered for a game we were out.

At that time I was really worried. We had to keep track of the players in Spain constantly. When 12 players tested negative, I told them to fly to India right away. When I picked them up at the airport, I was extremely happy and hugged them like a father hugs his children.

That was probably the toughest time in my coaching career. Covid-19 was devastating as it caused unprecedented personnel difficulty for the team. It is fortunate that the players were infected before and not during the tournament.

How did you deal with the group stage, when Vietnam faced the two strongest teams in Asia, Japan and South Korea, and a tough opponent in Southeast Asia, Myanmar?

Before the tournament started I did wonder why Vietnam were in such a challenging group. But when I looked closer, I could see that there was still a World Cup qualification chance since there were slots in the quarterfinals and the playoffs for the best third-placed teams. So I told the players to keep calm since we did not know what lay ahead.

In the first two games in the group stage against South Korea and Japan, it was arduous. I do not want to sound pessimistic but these opponents are on a different level. Even with the strongest squad, Vietnam cannot beat them. Therefore, I told the players to minimize the damage as much as possible and try to concede less than three goals. I considered these games as a warm-up for players who had just recovered from Covid.

How does your wife feel when you are away from home?

She completely supports me because she knows I am dedicated to my job. She just tells me to stay healthy in whatever I am doing. I know she has had hard times because I have been away from home since I was young and she had to take care of the children by herself. But because of the financial situation, I have to work to provide for my family.

Coach Mai Duc Chung and his family. Photo by Huy Minh

Coach Mai Duc Chung (6th from L) and his family. Photo by Huy Minh

Has your wife ever told you to retire when she saw how much pressure you were dealing with?

Of course. She told me if it is too much pressure then I should retire because that will affect my health. But I know only one job, that of a football coach, and so I am trying to do this as long as I can. Besides, I am not busy all the time, and I do have breaks when there are no tournaments.

I don't mind the pressure because I have been in the game for a long time. My heart, my memory and my mind are good. I may be old and my health is not as good as before, but I still can get the job done. I still train at the field with the players, maybe not as fast as them but my shots are still accurate.

In India, sometimes it was really hot but sometimes it was pouring. If your health is not good, you cannot withstand such conditions and pressure. But as you can see, I can stand for two hours in sunny weather without a problem.

Why did you decide not to coach the team at the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

That game (against Taiwan) was too important and thrilling, and so I felt stressed and wanted to take a break. To be honest, I cannot say yet whether I will coach the team at the World Cup or not because it depends on my health. One thing is for sure: I will coach the team for the rest of 2022 because of my contract with the VFF.

 
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