An interpreter puts his best foot forward for Vietnamese football

By Sen    May 2, 2020 | 10:00 pm PT
An interpreter puts his best foot forward for Vietnamese football
Vietnam's national football coach Park Hang-seo and his interpreter Le Huy Khoa after Vietnam’s U22 men’s football team won at the SEA Games final, December 10, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.
"Lower your butt," Le Huy Khoa calls out aloud.

His instruction is aimed at national team football players undergoing a training session in Hanoi.

His voice is stern and his feet are constantly moving as he puts the players through their paces, also joining them in some moves.

Khoa is not a coach, though. He is not even the assistant coach doing the bidding of head coach. Nor is he the team physio. He is an avid fan whose enthusiasm for national football has propelled him to the position of interpreter for the South Korean head coach, Park Hang-seo.

Like many fans, Khoa dreamed of shaking the hands of Cong Phuong, Xuan Truong, Quang Hai and other talented footballers. How this dream came true in ways he would not have dreamed of is a story that has at its core the element of seeing and grabbing the bull of opportunity by its horns. 

Shot in the dark

When he heard that the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) had hired Park to coach the men’s national and U22 football teams in 2017, Khoa immediately emailed the organization, announcing his Korean language credentials and expressing his interest in working with Park as his interpreter, even before there was any recruitment announcement.

Park, 62, was an exciting choice. A former member of the South Korean national team before starting his professional coaching career in 1989, he'd been an assistant to football legend Guus Hiddink of the Netherlands, who led the RoK team to the semifinals of the World Cup 2002 as well as the nation's U23 team to win the bronze medal at the Asian Games the same year.

"I sent VFF the email even before they'd said anything about looking for anyone, so my email was vague. I didn't know if Park and his team would use English or Korean, but I was hoping that if he used Korean, I could help out," Khoa said.

The preemptive email did find its mark with an invitation to an interview. It was scheduled in Hanoi, so Khoa flew there from Saigon, where he had a fulltime job and a family.

When he arrived, Khoa realized he was not the only one in contention for the position. There were five candidates that day. He was the first one called.

"Park and five other people interviewed me for about 20 minutes. He was mainly the one who asked questions, about my outlook on life, my family foundation, etc. He only asked me a couple of questions about my football vocabulary."

The husband, father and self-made Saigon-based businessman doubted he would be chosen, considering he couldn't work for Park full time.

"I was quite disappointed and didn't know what was going to happen next. In my mind, I gave up and began considering other assignments."

But VFF rang him a week later with an invitation to work for Park part time until they could find a full timer.

Two years on, the ‘temp’ has become an integral part of the team.

Initially, Park's interpreter shadowed him in transferring his instructions and feedback to the footballers. Today, constantly trailing Park at practice sessions is no longer mandatory. Khoa has understood Park's vision and coaching methods, allowing him to support the players on his own at different points in time.

When Park signed the contract with VFF in September 2017, Vietnamese men’s football was languishing in the dumps. The national team had been ousted at the group stage of the 29th SEA Games, knocked summarily out of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and was only able to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup through a playoff match. Vietnam were 130th in the FIFA rankings, and faith and enthusiasm of fans was waning.

So Park faced daunting challenges at the start of his coaching assignment, as did the team who were to work with him, including Khoa. Their first mission together was to travel to different parts of Vietnam, so Park could be introduced to Vietnam's football scene and the players.

Park listened attentively to Khoa and a football manager with the VFF who accompanied him on the trip as they informed him about the country, its culture and people. They went to all the national football hotspots, including the northern localities of Hanoi, Hai Phong and Quang Ninh; Thanh Hoa, Vinh and Da Nang in the central, Gia Lai in the Central Highlands; and in the south, Saigon, Binh Duong and other places.

"Since the very beginning, Park worked hard and with great enthusiasm. He took note of everything and was very meticulous. We made a good team," Khoa recalled.

A new ballgame

When he is not working with Park, Khoa runs a Korean language school he founded in 2005 that currently teaches nearly 2,000 students at ten branches across the country.

The father of two studied Korean at the prestigious Yonsei University in South Korea, graduating in 1998 and also worked for three years for the Vietnamese embassy in Seoul (2000-2002).

The 46-year-old had since worked as an interpreter at several high-end meetings between Vietnamese and Korean diplomats as well as Vietnam's meetings with top-tier Korean corporate honchos.

But football interpretation was a whole new ballgame.

"I searched online..., but there were no books or materials on Vietnamese-Korean football terms."

Besides, it is common for football coaches anywhere to use English terms on the field. Besides his usual colloquial Korean, Park used Konglish, a portmanteau of Korean and English.

Konglish uses Korean pronunciations of English words that often don't sound like anything like the original. This was difficult for Khoa at first, but his self-study – he dug around for important and commonly used expressions in all three languages online and offline – and months of working with Park helped overcome the obstacle, aided by years of professionally interpreting thoughts and ideas for Vietnamese and Koreans.

Constant tension

Sports interpreters are required to be extremely knowledgeable of the sport they are translating. This includes a strong understanding of the rules, proper terminology, important statistics, historical facts and current events about the particular sport.

But the job also demands culturally fluency in the original and target language, so Khoa had to learn to read the undercurrents and translate excitement, anxiety, thrill, anger and other emotions.

As such, he also plays the role of an emotion regulator between Park and the players.

"When the players feel vulnerable, there is no need to convey Park's frustration. But when they are slacking and need to hear stern reminders then the emotion needs to be understood. I always have to make a judgment call on this, because coach Park is a short-tempered guy.

"Football interpretation is also emotion interpretation. Even a small encouragement can give the players tremendous power, especially during a close game."

Le Huy Khoa, along with assistant coach Lee Young Jin deliver coach Parks message to Tien Linh who broke through three defenders in the box to headed the ball in from a cross in the left wing, contributing to Vietnams 2-2 draw against arch rivals Thailand at the SEA Games semifinal, December 5, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Le Huy Khoa (2nd, L) and assistant coach Lee Young Jin deliver coach Park's message during the SEA Games semifinal between Vietnam and Thailand, December 5, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

The Vietnamese players had never worked with a Korean coach before and the coach did not know much about Vietnam either. So Khoa used his knowledge to decode the mannerisms of Koreans and the values they uphold for the Vietnamese players and did the same thing for Park, introducing him to Vietnamese ways of thinking.

But he was also aware that he had to be a constant learner because there was little to no room for mistakes, with one misunderstood instruction having the ability to wreck the coach's strategy. For this he also had to be adept at the sign language involved in the sport.

For instance, putting a finger on one's mouth meant ‘we need to talk’, while stacking the arms and moving them up and down in front of the chest meant ‘accelerate or slow down.’

The interpreter said he was lucky he has not made any major mistakes, and is thankful for help and advice he got from midfielder Luong Xuan Truong when a term or concept wasn't clear. Truong played for South Korean club Incheon United on a two-year loan deal a few years ago, and was conversant with Korean culture and practices.

Other players also helped when Khoa, a football amateur, accidentally misunderstood the positions they were supposed to practice.

"For example, I would translate from what Park said that the team was going to practice ‘owning’ the ball, but the players would use the word ‘control’ instead."

Khoa had to have the patience to absorb and communicate myriad technical terms used in the sport in both Vietnamese and Korean, and he is thankful that bonding with the players made the job easier.

Khoa has to travel frequently on the job, especially before major events like last year's SEA Games, where the national team won their first ever gold medal. So he is grateful for the strong support he gets at home, from his wife and two children, a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old girl.

"My kids also like and watch football. My wife and mother were not so keen, but since I started working for VFF, they have started watching the game too," he said.

Khoa's loved ones have also witnessed how sleeplessness before a big game has become routine, but he said it was not the make-or-break matches that were the most stressful.

It was Park’s pre-game pep talks.

"I’ve done this hundreds of times, but I'm still worried. I’m scared that if I don't capture the essence and soul of his encouragement and motivation, if I don’t touch on the players’ feelings, then how do they shine and play at their best?"

"My job, essentially, is always tense," Khoa said.

If the constant tension was not enough, there was drama akin to a Korean soap opera, too. In October 2018, Khoa's "breakup" with the team filled newspaper headlines, with reports citing VFF's statement that he'd stopped working with the organization for "personal reasons." The resignation happened one day after Park had selected players to compete at the AFF Cup that year.

Since VFF never specified the reason for Khoa's departure, there was plenty of speculation. There were theories about mistakes on Khoa's part in sharing behind-the-scene details of the nuts and bolts of Park's coaching methods and philosophy with other people.

In March last year, Khoa returned to his position after a hiatus of nearly five months, following the VFF's invitation.

Khoa was reluctant to talk about this absence. "I don't want to talk about the past. I want to focus on the present."

Looking ahead

2019 was a fruitful year for Vietnamese football after success at the Asian Cup, the World Cup qualification matches and the SEA Games triumph.

The rare string of victories has earned Park overwhelming love and devotion of Vietnamese fans who call him a "wizard" and generated great interest in Vietnamese football and the coach's exploits in his home country, South Korea, an Asian football powerhouse.

On December 10 2019, Vietnam won their first ever SEA Games gold as the U22 men’s team romped to a 3-0 win against Indonesia. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Vietnamese footballers throw Park hang-seo in the air as they win Vietnam's first gold medal at SEA Games men's football with a 3-0 victory over Indonesia, December 10, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Khoa doesn't find the idolization of Park surprising, but he wants Vietnamese people to explore and learn from Park's achievements, the challenges the coach overcame in a foreign country as he led Vietnam out of an apparent rabbit hole of failures.

The interpreter for the 2019 Southeast Asian football champions fervently hopes that they will make full use of the momentum that Park and his team have helped generate.

"We have an excellent generation of players, a terrific coach, a great team that works well and understands each other, and the support and cheers of the Vietnamese people and the government."

Vietnam awaits another goal fever in 2020 with the AFF Cup and several World Cup qualification matches coming up.

All football games in Vietnam have been suspended since mid-March due to the Covid-19, and are expected to return next month.

Khoa said he's not aware of an official plan of when the national team will gather again but the players are still practicing and getting ready to return to the field.

He himself has been helping coach Park and VFF translate practice guidance videos for the players.

"I really miss the footballers and the team atmosphere. I hope that this year the team can maintain their position as the champion of AFF, and get into the World Cup final.

"It’s going to be very busy at the end of this year for us."

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