He is back in Vietnam, helping Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) make a V. League comeback. The club top the table mid-season.
- When you arrived in Vietnam for the first time in 2002, you stole the limelight with fans and the media lavishing
attention on you. You were then the best player in Southeast Asia. At the same time, Vietnam was a long-time rival of
Thailand. What motivated you to make such a big decision?
Hoang Anh Gia Lai’s boss Doan Nguyen Duc invited me to come and play football in Vietnam. At first, I said no because I was not happy with my unsuccessful spells overseas in England and Singapore. I was ready to retire because I was nearly 30 and I wanted to focus on my family. Then Duc flew to Bangkok to see me. He even attended and celebrated my wedding, which really surprised me. That was my first impression of him. Then a few days later, after talking to Duc, I said yes to his offer.
- What did he say that you were persuaded?
Duc said that he had just taken over HAGL for one year and he wanted to take me there because many Vietnamese fans knew me and couldn’t wait to see me play in Vietnam. I know how much Vietnamese love football, so I was very happy to come and play.
- When you did arrive, what did you feel about the welcome you got?
I was really surprised. It was the first time in my career that I received such a big welcome. I know that Vietnamese fans love football but I didn’t know they were so crazy about it. I once told the press in Thailand that the football atmosphere in Vietnam is similar to European leagues like Serie A and La Liga. I have never seen anything like that. Although it put pressure on me, I felt really proud and was ready to give my best for HAGL.
- What is the most precious memory that you have with the fans in Vietnam?
It was when we became V. League champions for the first time in 2003. Many fans rode their motorcycles, shouting and lighting up flares on the street. That crowd was fantastic. I still remember it like the first day. I’m really proud of that moment and I feel like this is my second home.
- You were given big roles in the team, including the captain. You became the main goalscorer, and then a player-coach in the last days of your career in 2006. How did you manage the dressing room of a team with many talented Vietnamese players?
Lucky for me, 90 percent of the HAGL players could speak English so it was easy to communicate. I told them that it was time to win this championship for the fans and the club, and I was there to help.
- Let’s talk about your coaching days. Success didn’t come immediately. Did it make you feel down, lose motivation or even want to stay away from football?
Football gave me everything. I have never thought of running away from it. At that time, I’d just got my professional license and it was only the beginning of my career, so I had no worries.
- After leaving Vietnam for more than 10 years, you decided to return as HAGL’s coach again. What are the reasons behind your decision, this time?
The reason is that I want to help Duc and repay him since he gave me an opportunity to play for HAGL and when I was near retirement, he gave me a chance to be a player-coach at the club, which helped my early coaching career a lot.
After leaving the club, I still kept in touch with Duc and followed every step of HAGL. Then I became Thailand’s national head coach. In 2017, I temporarily stopped coaching to focus on business. But when Duc called, I knew that he needed me and I agreed to return without hesitation.
- You have achieved success as HAGL are flying high at the top of the league. How did it happen, considering the club have struggled in recent years?
HAGL have good players with ability and technique but that’s not everything. I told them if you want to succeed, you must have a winning mentality, that’s the most important factor. I told them to try and now in the first leg of the season, we are at the top. Although the whole second leg is waiting, I think HAGL can join the title race.
- At the start of the season, did you think that HAGL would be in the first position after 12 rounds?
No. That was unexpected. My initial target was only the top three and Duc even said top four. But now we are on the top of the table. That’s a well-deserved result for the team’s effort. I have told the players that this has been a great season so far, but what matters most is the final result. It’s too early to talk about winning the title right now.
- Which HAGL game were you most impressed with this season?
Each game has left a special memory. Like our opening game which we lost to Saigon FC. It was disappointing for me and the fans. Or the matches with Viettel FC and Hanoi FC, these are the highlights. But if I have to choose, I’ll say the clash with Hanoi was the most impressive. They are still one of the top teams in V. League despite their poor form this season.
- What would be your main advice to the players at this stage?
The second leg will not be easy. If you want to succeed, you must prepare and train much harder than the first leg. The important thing is not to put pressure on your shoulders. Don’t let that pressure be a burden. Just give your best in the game. The key is to keep calm and not panic.
- Is playing in the AFC Champions League (ACL) the ultimate goal of HAGL?
HAGL still need to improve a lot more if they want to play at the top-tier club tournament in Asia. What I want is that the players must be 100 percent ready for the ACL. If they’re not, let another team play instead. Representing the country there is not just for fun. Of course, HAGL want to play in the ACL and I hope we can get the chance after this season.
- What do you feel about Vietnam’s chance at the second round of World Cup Asian qualifiers?
I want Vietnam to advance to the final qualification round. If that happens, it will be a huge step for Vietnamese football. For my country Thailand, it will be much harder because we have to win three games while Vietnam only need to win two.
Vietnam can advance if they play well against Malaysia and Indonesia. I think they can do it. Once they get to the final round, the players will get to play with the best teams and gain valuable experiences. They will also have the opportunity to prove themselves and catch the attention of football scouts, which will increase their chances of playing overseas.
Duc Dong - Quang Huy