Vietnam's resurgence and the Park Hang-seo fairy tale

By Nguyen My, Duc Dong   October 23, 2019 | 08:04 pm PT
Vietnam's resurgence and the Park Hang-seo fairy tale
Vietnam's national football team players throw coach Park Hang-seo in the air after they won the AFF Cup final against Malaysia in Hanoi, December 15, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.
In his two years at the helm of Vietnamese football, Park Hang-seo has taken the national team to historic victories.

It began with a tale of love at first sight.

Doan Nguyen Duc, owner of Hoang Anh Gia Lai football club, then-vice president of the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF)’s finance department and a passionate supporter of Vietnamese football, was determined to find a competent manager for the national team and went to meet Park in Korea.

At the time Park was the manager of Changwon City FC, a third-division team in the semi-professional Korea National League.

"He really impressed me in our first meeting," Duc recalls.

"He was cheerful and friendly. When I offered him the job of manager of the Vietnamese national team, I could see the determination and belief in his eyes.

"After our first conversation, I realized we had the same football philosophy, which would work well here in Vietnam."

Coach Park Hang-seo (L) with Doan Nguyen Duc, owner of Hoang Anh Gia Lai football club, in March 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Coach Park Hang-seo (L) with Doan Nguyen Duc, owner of Hoang Anh Gia Lai football club, in March 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

In September 2017 Park signed the contract. Some serious challenges were awaiting him. The Vietnamese team had been ousted at the group stage of the 29th SEA Games and knocked out of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and were only able to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup through a play-off match.

Vietnam were 130th in the FIFA rankings, and fans had started to lose patience.

To fans and the media, Park did not arrive with any great expectations or with the hope of being a savior. They even doubted if a South Korean National League manager without previous experience of coaching a national team could make any difference to such a waning team.

Park himself had a humble objective: to take Vietnam back into the top 100.

Fast forward to the present, and Park has a very impressive resume: Vietnamese finished fourth in the 2018 Asian Games, won the 2018 AFF Cup and made the last eight of the 2019 Asian Cup besides finishing runners-up in the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.

Some might consider his success a fluke, but it's all a consistent plan.

He had said at the VFF office while taking over on October 11, 2017: "I demand possession-based football with short passes on mobility."

Through ups and downs, Park persisted with his football philosophy.

He does not try to start a football revolution in every match, but, rather, sticks to his trusted counter-attacking style.

Park trusts his young players, and knows this is where he should build on if he wants long-term success.

When he first came, he started with the under-23 players, who were fresh from a disappointing SEA Games campaign. Just half a month later, in China, he took them through the most spectacular and memorable tournament in Vietnamese football history.

They overcame big rivals like Australia, Iraq and Qatar to make it into the final.

The AFC U23 final was played in a raging blizzard, and Vietnam heartbreakingly lost 1-2 to Uzbekistan in the last minute of extra time. Now etched in the memory of almost every Vietnamese, it was inarguably the moment that revived the trust in their nation's football future.

Most of the players from that squad have graduated to the senior team, and while some may accuse Park of favoritism, there is no denying he is on the right track. They won for Vietnam the ASEAN championship for the first time in 10 years and beat Thailand right in their backyard in the King's Cup to usurp their long-held status as the number 1 team in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam earlier also crushed Thailand 4-0 in the 2020 AFC U23 qualifiers.

Park came to Vietnam at a time of doom and gloom. He has helped rebuild the Vietnamese football team. His patience, fatherly affection and discipline have shaped the team admirably.

Ever since that bittersweet time in China, Park’s men have reignited a nation’s love for the game; every match, competitive or friendly, has become a must-see event; tickets are sold out in a matter of minutes and stadiums are packed to the rafters while millions more watch breathlessly from home.

People stream into the streets with flags and horns to celebrate every victory. New life has truly been breathed into the Vietnamese football scene.

Duc, the man who had faith in him from day one, gushes: "Incredible, more than incredible. Park was born for Vietnamese football."

Park has done much better than what he set out to do. Vietnam have been in the top 100 in the FIFA rankings for several months and achieved historic results in recent competitions. Advancing to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers was unthinkable back in the days, but it is now a perfectly feasible objective.

The U22 team are expecting to wear gold for the first time at the 30th SEA Games and eyeing a ticket to the 2020 Olympics.

He might have come with few expectations, but now Park must have got used to the high expectations, an indication of how far the team has come.

How coach Park wins hearts of his Vietnamese students. Video by Nhung Nguyen.

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