Sports - December 25, 2023 | 03:08 pm PT

These events defined Vietnamese sports in 2023

Vietnamese sports provided a bevy of colorful triumphs and dramatic challenges in 2023, as well as many firsts.

Here are 7 events that made for such an exciting year for the country.

First World Cup appearance

Vietnamese players celebrate after keeper Tran Thi Kim Thanh blocked the U.S.'s penalty in their Women's World Cup group stage game in Eden Park, New Zealand, July 22, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

On July 22, 2023, the Vietnam national anthem was played for the first time at the World Cup.

The familiar patriotic tune marked Vietnamese women's football's historic first ascent to the global competition, held in Auckland, New Zealand this year.

In their first-ever World Cup game, Vietnam impressed with their disciplined play and only lost 0-3 to the defending champions from the U.S. Before the game, many experts predicted that Vietnam would suffer a much bigger defeat.

Vietnam did not create any splashes in the next two games when they lost 0-2 to Portugal and 0-7 to the Netherlands, exiting the tournament without scoring a goal.

Still, despite leaving early, the team earned the respect of their foreign competitors and received compliments from FIFA for their "organized style of play."

Compared to Thailand, who conceded 20 goals in the previous tournament, Vietnam’s performance in this edition was considered a success, even though the results achieved by another Southeast Asian team, Philippines, included a win.

The tournament also marked head coach Mai Duc Chung’s 20th year with the national women’s football team.

The 72-year-old coach retired in November as the most decorated football coach in the history of Vietnamese football.

SEA Games 32 triumph and a miracle run

Runner Nguyen Thi Oanh celebrates her wins with a Vietnamese flag in SEA Games 32 on May 9, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Hieu Luong

Vietnam’s 136 gold medals in Cambodia this year marked the first time Vietnam topped the medal tally at a SEA Games they did not host.

Vietnam took home nearly 25% of all the gold medals offered at the event.

Sports of strength such as diving, wrestling, judo and vovinam (Vietnamese martial arts) brought Vietnam more than 30% of their gold medals.

The most memorable moment of the tournament was Nguyen Thi Oanh’s incredible performance in the competition’s final track events. SEA Games 32 host Cambodia suddenly pushed the schedule for the 1,500 m run and 3,000 m hurdles up against each other, which gave Oanh only a 20-minute break between the two runs.

Undaunted by the challenge, Oanh went all-in on both events.

After finishing first in the 1,500 m, she rested briefly before claiming another win in the 3,000 m hurdles, an outstanding feat for any runner.

However, SEA Games ended incomplete for Vietnam as the men’s football team failed to defend their gold medal by losing to Indonesia in a semifinal upset. Vietnam also could not top two Olympic sports, athletics and swimming, finishing behind both Thailand and Singapore.

Asian Games disappointment

Nguyen Huy Hoang in disappointment after failing to win a medal in the men's 1,500m freestyle swimming at Asian Games on Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Bui Luong

Four months after the glory at SEA Games, Vietnam entered the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China full of expectations.

However, they struggled and only won three gold medals in shooting, sepak takraw and karate.

Vietnam’s lackluster performance became the laughing stock of the Southeast Asian media. From topping the SEA Games, they dropped to sixth in Southeast Asia at the Asian Games, behind Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore.

CNN Indonesia bashed Vietnam’s performance and pointed out that there was no trace of their SEA Games greatness at the Asian Games.

Many local experts also considered it a national failure for Vietnam after they finished outside top 20. The athletes’ potential was squandered, critics said, and most of them could only take home a bronze medal.

A new, uneasy football chapter

Coach Philippe Troussier during a game of Vietnam's national football's team. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Most local Vietnamese football fans had immediately high expectations for coach Philippe Troussier when he replaced Park Hang-seo, who achieved immense success with the national team over the past five years.

Troussier has a different football philosophy from Park, and he switched the team’s playing style from counter-attack football to possession football.

Many key players under Park were also replaced by new, young players. Hometown hero favorites likes such Do Duy Manh, Ho Tan Tai, Nguyen Phong Hong Duy, Phan Van Duc and even Nguyen Hoang Duc were no longer the coach’s first go-to choices. Some young players made the most of the chance and earned concrete spots in the lineup, including Vo Minh Trong, Phan Tuan Tai and Nguyen Thai Son.

Vietnam started the Troussier era with three friendly shutout wins against Hong Kong, Syria and Palestine, all without conceding a single goal.

But the team’s shortcomings were quickly revealed when they played stronger opponents from China, Uzbekistan and South Korea. A 0-6 loss against the latter was their worst defeat in 20 years.

When the team entered the 2026 World Cup second qualifying round, they beat Philippines 2-0 before losing 0-1 in the last minute to Iraq.

Experts said Troussier needs more time to perfect his style of play and incorporate it more fully into the team. All eyes are on him in the lead up to January’s 2024 Asian Cup, which is seen as representing an important test for the coach and his rebuilding of the team.

Young world billiards champion

Bao Phuong Vinh brings his World Three-Cushion Championship home on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Newcomer Bao Phuong Vinh only needed a year of international competition to win the World Three-Cushion Championship in Ankara, Turkey this September.

He did so by defeating his compatriot Tran Quyet Chien in the final round to become the first Vietnamese player to win the prestigious tournament.

Vinh’s achievement is even more impressive knowing that he has only been playing proper professional billiards for over a year after finishing his master’s degree in Australia recently.

Renowned international players like Torbjorn Blomdahl and Marco Zanetti lauded Vinh’s style of play. They noted that Vinh is always a threat to score from any and every position, no matter what. He’s known to exude confidence and play with a relaxed demeanor as though he’s not under any pressure at all, even on do-or-die shots. Many of the biggest names in billiards don’t exhibit this trait.

After the first leg of his storybook journey, Vinh continued to compete at three Three-Cushion World Cup, but only made it to the quarterfinals. However, the rookie sensation is in no hurry as he has plenty of upcoming chances to win, including at the World Cup next year.

Badminton queen

Nguyen Thuy Linh reacts after scoring against world champion Carolina Marin at the first round of China Masters 2023 on Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by BWF

Phenom Nguyen Thuy Linh re-affirmed her position as Vietnam’s number one badminton player with another stellar run this year.

She won the Vietnam Open and Vietnam International Challenge, finished second at the Thailand International Challenge and reached the quarterfinals of the Canadian Open, the U.S. Open and the Finnish Open.

In November, she stunned the badminton world by beating Spanish star and three-time world champion Carolina Marin at the China Masters. After the game, Marin praised Linh and said she was a better competitor.

Linh ended 2023 on a high note when she returned to the world’s top 20 in the official global rankings.

On the rankings for 2024 Paris Olympics qualification, Linh is currently ranked 15th and is likely to qualify if she maintains her form.

The champions killer

Defender Dao Van Nam celebrates after scoring for HanoI FC against Urawa Red Diamonds in AFC Champions League in Hanoi on Dec. 6, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Minh

Hanoi FC shocked everyone when they beat Urawa Red Diamonds 2-1 in the last round of the AFC Champions League group stage, ending the Japanese powerhouse’s chance of defending the title they won last year.

Urawa’s assumed-juggernauts needed to win the game to keep their hope of advancing, but Hanoi did not give them the chance.

After Alexander Scholz's penalty in the 10th minute was blocked by goalkeeper Nguyen Van Hoang, Urawa conceded a goal in the 53rd minute when defender Dao Van Nam scored with a header.

Striker Bryan Linssen kept Urawa’s hope alive in the 65th minute with an equalizer, but a late-game mistake by Urawa's defense gave Hanoi a penalty and Pham Tuan Hai made no mistake putting ball to net, securing the 2-1 win for Hanoi and eliminating Urawa from the tournament.

Before the upset and embarrassingly-early exit, Urawa had never lost to a Southeast Asian club in the AFC Champions League.

In the end, Hanoi were also eliminated from the tournament, but they left the competition with their heads held high on the amazing victory against the previously-dominant Asian giant.

Hoang Nguyen