Q&A with coach Park Hang-seo, the mastermind behind Vietnam's U23 football success

By Staff reporters   January 28, 2018 | 08:31 pm PT
Q&A with coach Park Hang-seo, the mastermind behind Vietnam's U23 football success
Park Hang-seo makes a motion as he recalls the journey of the Vietnamese team at the AFC U23 Cup at VnExpress office in Hanoi on Monday.
'I've asked them not to show off... I still watch them.'

The South Korean coach visited VnExpress office in Hanoi on Monday to answer readers' questions about the memorable run to the AFC U23 final.

- What were your targets before going to China for the AFC U23?

There were 16 teams at the tournament, and Vietnam was considered one of the underdogs, being ranked 14th. In our group alone, we had Australia, South Korea and Syria, and people thought there was little hope for Vietnam.

We had to focus completely on each and every game and have a strategy for each game. Our target was just to try our best to win each game.

- How did you know your team was as at the same level as South Korea and Japan?

I think I may have been misunderstood. During the tournament, a local reporter asked me about the quality of the Vietnamese players, but I did not compare them to South Korea or Japan.

I've coached South Korean players, but I've never worked with Japanese players.

What I said was that Vietnamese players have their own unique special qualities in terms of pace, strength and technique that I do not see in Japanese or South Korean players. I did not say they are at the same level.

- Why did you decide to sign a deal with the VFF to become head coach of Vietnam’s U23 national team?

Actually, it was kind of a surprise. I’d never trained a Vietnamese team before. Then my agent told me that the VFF (Vietnam Football Federation) was interested in me while I was in charge of a small South Korean team.

I did not know much about Vietnam or the Vietnamese players. All I knew was that Xuan Truong was playing in South Korea and that Vietnamese football is developing fast.

I wanted to challenge myself. I think this is the last challenge and opportunity in my career. Now my dream of coaching abroad has been fulfilled and it’s lucky that everything has been good.

Maybe I need VnExpress to ask the VFF: Why me? Many coaches in South Korea want to know the answer because South Korea currently has many young and talented coaches. I’m already old enough to retire.

- What strategy did you use to help Vietnam’s U23 team transform in just a short period of time?

You should not say that I have transformed the Vietnamese football team into something else because the team can do much better.

For me I will try my best to share all the experiences I have collected over the decades to help the Vietnamese players.

- What did you and your assistants do to inspire the players?

We all have to deal with stress in our lives. I was away from home and felt homesick, but every morning when I looked into the players’ eyes, it made me stronger, it motivated me. I couldn't find that feeling even in my hometown. It's not just me, all the members of my crew felt it too.

Coach Park Hang-seo cries as he talks about his players. Photo by VnExpress

Park Hang-seo cries as he talks about his players at VnExpress office in Hanoi on Monday. Photo by VnExpress

I don’t know why there is a preconception that Vietnamese players are weak and that their qualities cannot be compared with others in Asia.

I want to change that way of thinking. I want to make the best out of Vietnamese players.

- What did you do to make the Vietnamese players physically stronger?

It was actually impossible to improve their strength in just a couple of weeks, but I recognized that Vietnamese players have their own strong points and techniques to compensate for their strength and size.

The most important strategy is that I changed the formation from four midfielders to just three to overcome their weaknesses.

I don’t know why people keep saying that being small is a weak point for Vietnamese players. Small players are quicker, and in addition, Vietnamese players are smart, they can easily understand my strategies and adapt to them very quickly.

We also figured out that their upper bodies are weak, so we sent them to the gym to train a month before the tournament.

But after all that, I want to say again that my assistants and I did not do much to improve the players’ strength. I want to remind you all Vietnamese players are not weak.

- How did you and the VFF change the diet of the Vietnamese players to make them stronger?

This is another misunderstanding. I respect the Vietnamese culture and cuisine and I did not make any changes to their diets. I just told them to eat more soya and milk each day.

I have to thank the VFF for carefully preparing the food for the players.

- How did you choose the players for the U23 national team?

I did not have much knowledge of Vietnamese players before I came to Vietnam. My method was to watch them play.

I also chose players based on their characters. I prefer players who have good manners, have good relationships with others and know how to behave in public.

- What did you tell your players during the most difficult points of the championship?

During training, I asked a lot from the players, and even yelled at them. But once they were in the game, I did not say much, most of the time. Once they’re in the game they know what to do and they have to find ways to connect with each other. Of course it depends on who they are playing but giving each player a role was what I paid most attention to.

I always ask players to talk to each other. When they live together and play games together, they talk to each other a lot, but they do that much less on the field. In football, players have to find a way to communicate with each other on the field. The players have reached about 60 percent of my requests for them to communicate so far.

- You seem to have a close relationship with your students. It looks like you're their father. How did you erase the gap between you and them?

As I said, I feel emotional when I look into their eyes. I decided to leave everything behind. I went from going to the World Cup in 2002 to becoming the head coach of Vietnam’s U23 national team. In training, I had to yell at them and be strict. But after all we’re a team, we have to put our egos behind us. I am the head coach, I have to be their role model. I’d like them to look at me as a big brother.

My last name is Park and some players have joked that they’re going to change their last names to Park. Just like a father and his sons. The players managed to create a friendly atmosphere between us. They are my players. I chose them and I take responsibility for them. It's just like being a parent and being responsible for our kids. But sometimes parents need to rely on their children, like when I laid my head on Trong Dai’s shoulder to take a nap at the airport. I’m a coach, but sometimes I have to rely on the players.

- What were you thinking when you were sitting by yourself in the technical area with your head down after Vietnam lost to Uzbekistan in the final?

We all know the players had to play in snowy conditions, something they had never done before. In harsh conditions like that, they played at their best, but it was a huge pity that they lost concentration in the last minute of the game. That was what I was thinking when I was sitting there.

The AFC decided to make the awards right after the match, and most of us had not regained out composure. It made me upset. Maybe the AFC wanted to finish things quickly because the weather was so bad.

- Who was the first person you called after the final?

I wanted to call my mother, but she's too old (97) to take my calls. I was also afraid that she was worried about me.

- What were your feelings as you stepped off the plane at Noi Bai Airport?

I'd been aware of the support we received through the media since we were in China. When we arrived at the airport, there was a huge crowd, but I was not that surprised. I'd felt it before in 2002 when South Korea made it to World Cup quarterfinals. But I thought the crowd would just be at the airport. I could not believe that so many people were waiting for us all the way from the airport to center of Hanoi.

I never knew that the Vietnamese love for football was so strong, and I couldn't tell if it was just their love for football, or just patriotism. That also puts pressure on me because I know there will be more challenges ahead. I think I have to prepare myself and my players from today.

- Do you think that the success of Vietnam at the AFC U23 was temporary or has the standard of Vietnamese football jumped to another level?

I heard somebody said that Vietnam had got lucky. Luck can come once, or twice, but it can't help us get to the final. They shouldn’t think like that. As coach of the Vietnamese team, I can't say if the players have reached a high standard, but I don’t think this is "temporary."

The result is not something random; it's thanks to the long-term efforts of our players. The image of Vietnamese football has been lifted. However, we need more time for the team to reach a higher level.

After AFC U23, expectations will be higher. Asia will look at Vietnam with different eyes, so the VFF, my crew and I will have to try much harder than before.

- Fans are crazy about your players. What advice do you want to give them to keep their feet on the ground?

I chose the players, and that’s why I adore them. Most of them are younger than my son. I look at them as my children. Aside from training sessions, there is no gap between us. Of course I have my own rules, as long as they do not cross the line, everything is fine.

In the short term, they will return to their clubs. As their leader, I've asked them not to show off. I want my assistants to tell them to double their efforts. When they wear the national colors, they have to be proud and try their best. Otherwise, they do not have the right to wear them. I want to remind them all that I still watch them, even when they return to their clubs.

Park Hang-seo smiles as he answers readers questions at VnExpress office in Hanoi on Monday.

Park Hang-seo smiles as he answers readers' questions at VnExpress office in Hanoi on Monday.

Park Hang-seo only started coaching Vietnam’s U23 national football team three months ago.

"In over 40 years of coaching, this is the tournament I am most proud of," said Park, who was assistant to Dutch coach Guus Hiddink during the 2002 World Cup where South Korea finished fourth, the country's biggest achievement.

"I'd like to thank my players; they're the ones who have created these memorable moments for me."

Vietnam lost in the AFC U23 final to Uzbekistan after conceding a goal in the last minute of extra time.

In addition to silver medals, the Vietnamese team also received the Fair Play Award at the competition, which took place in China.

It was the first time a Vietnamese national team has made it to the final of a continental championship, attracting attention from global football fans.

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