Do Hung Dung, the late bloomer that scored the Golden Ball

By Nguyen My   May 28, 2020 | 03:26 am PT
Late-developer Do Hung Dung's rise to success and, recently, status as the 2019 Golden Ball winner has been powered by determination and dedication.
Do Hung Dung (L) plays in an Asian Cup game between Vietnam and Japan, January 24, 2019. Photo by VnExpress.

Do Hung Dung (L) plays in an Asian Cup game between Vietnam and Japan, January 24, 2019. Photo by VnExpress.

Midfielder Dung surpassed Hanoi FC teammate Nguyen Quang Hai to be named the 2019 Vietnam Golden Ball winner Tuesday night. The award came as no surprise as Dung’s scintillating displays and midfield leadership propelled the Vietnam U-23 team to SEA Games gold and Hanoi FC to their domestic double.

"I have never thought about winning the Golden Ball. My goal is simply to fight, to devote myself and to win any match that I get to be in," Dung said after receiving the award.

"A lot of people have helped me win this."

Dung's rise under Park Hang-seo, who received a campaign medal for his contribution to Vietnamese football on the same night, has been so rapid it seems barely credible he only got his first senior cap in 2018, aged 24. A late-bloomer once deemed not physically strong enough, Dung has surmounted difficulties and surpassed expectations to become the very embodiment of the old cliche "it is never too late."

His current reputation as a tireless midfield powerhouse is a far cry from the local academy player he was 13 years ago. He lagged behind peers in physical development and was always one of the smallest kids. Dung was rejected by Hoa Phat Youth Academy numerous times for not having the desired physique.

Hoang Giang, Dung’s first coach at Gia Lam Youth Football Academy, recalled: "After he was rejected by Hoa Phat in 2007, I came to his house and talked to his parents until midnight. I wanted to take him back, and in order to do so, I had to discard some of my players."

Dung justified his coach’s trust when he was called up by then Hanoi T&T (now Hanoi FC) Under-17 in 2011, though the following years were by no means a bed of roses for the already 18-year-old midfielder. He was turned down by the senior team time after time for not being technical enough and often "running out of gas after 60 minutes", and was eventually sent on loan to Hanoi B, a then V. League 2 outfit now renamed Saigon FC, for four seasons.

He secured promotion for Saigon FC and a place for himself in his parent club’s first team in 2016. At 23, his first taste of top-flight football finally came. For comparison, Do Hung Dung, despite being four years older, made his V. League 1 debut in the same season as teammate Nguyen Quang Hai.

Prior to the arrival of Park Hang-seo, Dung never seemed part of the national team’s plan. He was left out in the last minute by Toshiya Miura for the 2014 ASIAD campaign in South Korea and failed to impress the Japanese manager during 2016 AFC U23 qualifiers. In the match against Japan, Dung was subbed on in the 47th minute and off in the 74th, his disappointing final 27 minutes for the national team in almost two years.

During this period, while many players of his age were called up and prepared for international competitions when V. League 1 concluded, Dung took solace in street football, playing with a few other local clubs.

It was Park Hang-seo that revived Dung’s international career. Park saw what he needed in the quiet, unassuming midfielder and decided to offer him one of the three spots for over-aged players in 2018 ASIAD. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury after the group stage and was forced to return home. Luck just kept playing tricks on him.

Dung made a strong comeback in 2019 and gradually established himself as an indispensable player for the national team, playing every single minute of Vietnam’s five matches at AFC Cup and 427 minutes at the second qualifier for 2022 World Cup. A high point was the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines, where he brilliantly orchestrated Vietnam’s U23 midfield and scored one goal in the final against Indonesia to claim gold.

Vietnam's journey at 2019 SEA Games. Video by VnExpress.

His development into a full-fledged Vietnam international and transformation from a physically weak player to a box-to-box midfielder capable of making last ditch tackles and five seconds later netting the ball, all at 26, is an absolute joy to watch.

"To be honest, it is beyond my comprehension how Dung has achieved this much success," said Hoang Giang, his former coach.

"But looking back, you can see that only a few players have the determination to overcome adversities and the professionalism that Dung has."

Dung said he is not thinking of defending the Golden Ball title next year.

"For now, I just want to stay focused and win more titles with the national team and Hanoi FC."

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