National team success fosters growing investment in kids' football

By Dennis Khng   September 17, 2019 | 07:28 am GMT+7

Kenzo, move the ball up! Viet Luu Thanh gestures enthusiastically at his son from the sidelines of the football pitch.

The drizzle on a cool August night in Ho Chi Minh City does not dampen the spirits of players or parents at this District 3 evening training session at the Amitie sports club.

A training session at Amitie football club in Ho Chi Minh City, August 2019. Photo by Dennis Khng.

Coach Cao Lam (C) in a training session at Amitie sports club in Ho Chi Minh City, August 2019. Photo by Dennis Khng.

In fact, all 20 players and their parents are enjoying the session. The parents catch up with each other while the kids warm up with coach Cao Lam. Every night this scene plays out across stadiums and fields throughout this sprawling city, an indication of the popularity of football in this country.

No doubt the country's recent successes in various regional tournaments, including winning the AFF Cup in December 2018 and reaching the final of the U23 AFC Championship in January 2018, only added to its popularity.

Kitaguchi Haruki, the Japanese CEO of Amitie, realized this growing interest and established the first training center in Ho Chi Minh City in 2014.

The club has expanded to 17 training centers in Vietnam and enrolled 3,300 students in Ho Chi Minh City and 1,500 in Hanoi. They are supported by 40 coaches based in Ho Chi Minh City and 20 in Hanoi.

Together with Vietnamese coaches, there are Japanese and European coaches too.

Coach Lam, who has been with the academy since its establishment in the country, says: "We look for children aged three to 15 and aim to develop them in a well-rounded way, not only in terms of their footballing skills but also develop their character, improve their language and English skills, social and leadership skills, and their non-cognitive abilities."

It is this focus on character formation through a Japanese style of football training which attracts parents like Thanh. He likes the emphasis on social skills, self-discipline, consideration for others and playing as a team, which Amitie fosters.

Indeed, at the end of the session the tired and sweaty students all line up and thank the coaches and parents. Every summer students can also opt to do a stint in Japan at Amitie's training centers.

Children take a bowl after a training session with Amitie in Ho Chi Minh City, March 2019. Photo courtesy of Amitie Sports Club.

Children bowl after a training session with Amitie in Ho Chi Minh City, March 2019. Photo courtesy of Amitie Sports Club.

Over at Juventus Academy, even though the attraction of the Juve brand plays a part in drawing in students, the character development of students is very much first priority, over and above any Juventus style of play.

Established in August 2018 the academy has three training centers in Ho Chi Minh City and plans to open two more soon.

It also has a $3 million dedicated training facility in the city's neighbor Ba-Ria Vung Tau Province helmed by four full-time coaches, which caters to the Juventus Youth Professional program, the top-tier, all expenses paid residential program whose students are selected for their professional football potential.

They are drawn from the Juventus Elite Youth program whose students are in turn drawn from the Juventus Youth Recreation program. The latter currently has around 350 students while the former has about 25 students and will add 15 more in the January 2020 intake.

"Selection to the professional program is done yearly and we currently have 80 students in it," Mae Mua, sports project director at Juventus Academy, says.

Their regular education is covered by the academy and continues concurrently at a nearby public school in Ba-Ria Vung Tau.

Giuseppe Zappella, Juventus Academy Vietnam director, joins a tranning session at Ba Ria-Vung Tau Stadium, June 2019. Photo coutersy of Juventus Academy Vietnam.

Giuseppe Zappella, Juventus Academy Vietnam director, joins a tranning session at Ba Ria-Vung Tau Stadium, June 2019. Photo coutersy of Juventus Academy Vietnam.

"We aim to enroll students born between 2006 and 2009 and our focus is to develop these young students’ characters," Mae says.

"We want to develop them on a personal level, not just on a football level. We teach them to be responsible, independent and respectful of others and improve their English skills."

Mae emphasizes that the academy wants to prepare the students to be able to do well in life, and have careers even outside playing football. In the past in Vietnam the training of young players just focused on developing their football skills, she says.

So if they fail to make it in football as professionals, they lack life and work-ready skills. Now the emphasis is on holistic development so that even if trainees don't become professional players, they can more easily go on to other jobs and careers.

It is this focus on well-rounded character development through football that seems to have resonated with young Vietnamese parents.

Thuan Do, whose son trains at the Juventus Academy, likes the fun and development of social skills which the Juventus Academy offers. The coaches are professional and there is a structure to groom football skills, but the overall environment also fosters social skills like teamwork in a fun setting, he notes.

Boys train with Juventus Academy Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, July 2019. Photo courtesy of Juventus Academy Vietnam.

Boys train with Juventus Academy Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, July 2019. Photo courtesy of Juventus Academy Vietnam.

The local private sector has caught onto this burgeoning football interest. The conglomerate Binh Minh Group partnering with Juventus to establish the academy is a prime example, while the PVF (Promotion Fund for Vietnamese Football Talent) established by Vingroup in 2017 in the northern Hung Yen Province is another notable football school.

Now transfer fees are high, salaries are good and many parents see football as a viable career option, Mae says.

Juventus academy coach Peter Nguyen adds that interest has really shot up with many more parents and kids interested in football in the last two, three years.

Certainly, the national team finding international success adds to this excitement. Striker Nguyen Cong Phuong has signed on with Belgium Pro League side Sint-Truiden, goalkeeper Dang Van Lam plays for Muangthong United in the Thailand League 1 while defender Doan Van Hau signed on with Dutch Eredivisie 1 team SC Heerenveen in early September.

Other famous foreign clubs are increasingly becoming interested in Vietnam too, committing to youth academies. AC Milan opened an academy in Hanoi in January 2019 in partnership with the Hojitsu Group of Japan, while the best example of a successful foreign club partnership was Arsenal and JMG Academy with Hoang Anh Gia Lai club 13 years ago. The system put in place has enabled many graduates, including Nguyen Cong Phuong, to move on to professional careers and even play for the national team.

Arsenal has withdrawn from this partnership as part of a global change in strategy and not because its Vietnam partnership was not successful, says Mae, who connected Arsenal with Hoang Anh Gia Lai.

Youth football investment is really a way to connect with fans and customers (for corporate partners), do long-term marketing, develop Vietnamese football from the grassroots, and possibly spot and groom young football talent in a structured but comprehensive way, she says.

 
 
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