Sports - December 21, 2019 | 04:12 pm PT

Vietnam's eventful sporting year

From the AFC Asian Cup to the SEA Games, here is a look back at how Vietnam did in major sporting events during 2019.

Rekindled the Golden Dragons' hope

Vietnamese players react after beating Jordan in a penalty shootout at Asian Cup on January 20, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Khoa.

After failing to qualify for the 2011 and 2015 editions of the AFC Asian Cup football tournament, the Vietnamese men's team won a ticket for the 2019 event in the UAE in January.

The team were placed in Group D with tough opponents, including two former Asian champions, Iran and Iraq.

The Golden Dragons lost 3-2 to Iraq and were outclassed 2-0 by Iran in the first two games. Though the door seemed to be closing on them, they showed remarkable fighting spirit to beat Yemen with goals from a free-kick and a penalty.

Fortune seemed to favor Vietnam as they sealed a spot in the last 16 because of having one yellow card less than Lebanon who also finished the group stage with three points and the same goal difference of -1 (both scored four goals and conceded five).

In the round of 16 Vietnam beat Jordan in a penalty shootout after the scores were tied 1-1 despite extra time. They were now in the quarterfinals.

The video assistant referee (VAR) system made its Asian Cup debut in Vietnam’s match with Japan.

VAR saved Vietnam when a goal by Japan off a corner was overturned after video footage showed the ball had touched the arm of a Japanese player before going into the net.

But just minutes later VAR footage helped spot a Vietnamese foul inside the box, and Japan scored off the resultant penalty.

Vietnam's dramatic Asian Cup journey ended in the quarterfinals at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai with the 0-1 loss against four-time champions Japan.

Despite the loss, fans showed their pride and love all over social media.

Nguyen Thi Hoa, a fan, summed it up: "Although the team lost we are proud of the players because they gave their best for their country and showed great improvement in skills from the past."

Transfer watch: Vietnamese footballers go abroad

There was a wave of acquisitions by foreign clubs this year.

In February Thai League 1 giant Muangthong United bought Dang Van Lam from Hai Phong FC for $500,000 on a three-year contract for a monthly salary of $10,000. It made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of the club.

Reports indicated that Muangthong United FC was impressed with his performance in the 2018 AFF Cup where he kept a clean sheet through the group stage and helped Vietnam go on and win the title.

A Facebook post by the Thai League 1 club in July hailed the 26-year-old for helping them through a rough start when they slumped to the relegation zone before climbing to safety thanks to his solid work in goal.

Muangthong wrote: "He’s always focused and never stays in one place. These are amazing qualities. At the start of the season, Lam was not in the best form and needed time to adapt. And now he has proved to be solid in goal and made his teammates feel more confident."

Luong Xuan Truong joined Thai League 1 club Buriram United on a one-year loan in February but had to end the contract in June. During his four months there the midfielder from Tuyen Quang Province played six matches in the Thai League and three in the AFC Champions League.

Truong did not make much impression but what he did really counted.

His only goal for Buriram, off a free kick against Nakhon Ratchasima on May 11, received Goal of the Year Award from the Football Association of Thailand on December 19.

Striker Nguyen Cong Phuong, 24, has been having a less than successful year at South Korea’s Incheon United FC and Belgium's Sint-Truidense V.V.

In February he was loaned by Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC to the K. League 1 team, but left after just four months despite signing a one-year deal. He made only five appearances, mostly from the bench, and his performances received mixed comments from the local media.

He then signed a one-year loan deal with the top-flight Belgian club, and has yet to make an impact on the pitch.

Doan Van Hau was another player who had the opportunity to ply his trade overseas.

The 20-year-old defender from Thai Binh Province joined top-flight Dutch club SC Heerenveen in September on a one-year loan from Hanoi FC for $1.4 million, the highest in Vietnamese football history, and reportedly gets a monthly salary of $22,000.

Hau made a winning debut in a second round match in the Dutch Cup on December 19.

After the match the club congratulated him with this message on their website: "When dreams come true. A beautiful moment. Van Hau made his debut for SC Heerenveen tonight."

Other Vietnamese footballers are seeking overseas opportunities. Strikers Martin Lo and Huynh Cong Den are trying out for Japanese club AC Nagano Parceiro. Midfielder Nguyen Tuan Anh and forward Nguyen Van Toan received trial invitations from La Liga club Deportivo Alaves but their manager at Hoang Anh Gia Lai have turned down the offer.

For Asian rising star, the only way is up

Vietnamese football players celebrate their 4-0 win against Thailand in a AFC U23 qualifier in Hanoi, March 26, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Vietnam, runners-up at the 2018 Asian Football Confederation U23 championship, have accomplished their mission of qualifying for the 2020 event to be held in Thailand by remaining undefeated after three knockout matches.

They crushed Brunei 6-0, beat Indonesia 1-0 and scored a surprisingly easy 4-0 win over Thailand in March.

Vietnam are in the relatively easy group D, which has none of the top teams. They play UAE on January 10, Jordan on January 13 and North Korea three days later.

Only North Korea is a mystery for Vietnam, having never played them after Park Hang-seo took charge.

Vietnam lost to the UAE in a penalty shootout in the third-place playoff at the 2018 Asian Games and beat Jordan at the 2019 Asian Cup.

Three top teams in the tournament will qualify for the 2020 Olympics. If Japan, the Olympics host, reach the semifinals, the three remaining teams will automatically qualify for Tokyo.

Women's football team reach for the stars

Vietnamese players raise the AFF Women's Championship trophy on August 27 in Thailand. Photo courtesy of VFF.

At the 2019 AFF Cup Women’s Championship in Thailand in August, Vietnam ended the host nation's three-year reign as champions, beating them in the final, and won the title.

The Golden Girls kicked off the tournament with a 10-0 trouncing of Cambodia in the first group stage. They then demolished Indonesia 7-0 and crushed Myanmar four to nothing. In the semifinal, they girls edged the Philippines 2-1 to set up a summit clash with Thailand on their home turf.

The final was intense with Thailand launching attack after attack. But Mai Duc Chung’s players handled the pressure capably, closely marking the Thai girls and giving them little space. The game went into extra time after the 90 minutes finished goalless.

Pham Hai Yen became the hero for Vietnam by tapping the ball into the Thai net in the fifth minute of extra time. Then the Golden Girls' defenders played brilliantly to dash Thai hopes and the match ended 1-0.

It was Vietnam’s third title after previous wins in 2006 and 2012.

Vietnamese fighters rule muay Thai tournaments

Nguyen Tran Duy Nhat reacts after knocking out Malaysia's Azwan Che Wil at ONE Immortal Triumph Championship Saigon at Phu Tho Stadium, Ho Chi Minh City, on September 6. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Several Vietnamese muay Thai stars punched their way to gold medals and championships this year.

Women fighters Huynh Ha Huu Hieu and Bui Yen Ly won gold medals at the World Championships held in Bangkok between July 18 and 28.

In the 45 kg category, Hieu beat Filipina Rudzna Abubakar with a knockout despite being smaller than her opponent. The 20-year-old chose a quick pressing strategy and used her elbows and knees as the main weapons to win her first ever world championship gold.

Ly defeated Russia's Ekaterina Gurina in the 51 kg category. The Russian attacked relentlessly but she defended solidly and responded with accurate counters, winning all three rounds on points.

Muay Thai warrior Nguyen Tran Duy Nhat, 30, dominated the ONE Championship, one of the world’s largest martial art events and broadcast to over 138 countries.

Nhat, a seven-time International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur champion, defeated Malaysia's Azwan Che Wil in his ONE Immortal Triumph Championship debut in HCMC last September.

The 24-year-old from Kuala Lumpur was battered by Nhat. With 10 seconds left, the fighter from Lam Dong Province knocked his opponent out cold and sent him off on a stretcher to an ambulance.

Last month Nhat knocked out Japan's Yuta Watanabe at the ONE Championship Edge of Greatness showdown in Singapore. He proved to be a tough fighter with a good ring sense, and threw a flurry of punches and high kicks to corner his opponent. After the break he landed three powerful kicks to the head, with the last one knocking Watanabe out just 30 seconds into the second round.

Founder, chairman and CEO of ONE Championship, Chatri Sityodthong, said he was very impressed with the performance: "He is a real true global superstar ... He could possibly be Vietnam's first world champion in combat sport."

SEA Games ends on happy note

U22 Vietnamese players lift coach Park Hang-seo up in the air to celebrate Vietnam's first gold medal in SEA Games men's football in the Philippines, December 10, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Vietnamese athletes across different sports put in blood, sweat and tears to help their country finish second in the medals tally at the 30th edition of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games held in the Philippines in November and December.

With 98 golds out of its total of 288 medals, Vietnam surpassed its target of 65-70 gold medals.

The nation's joy was heightened when both the men's and women's football teams won gold medals. Under head coach Park Hang-seo’s guidance, the men won their first ever SEA Games gold on December 10 with an easy 3-0 victory over Indonesia in the final where their defense was impregnable.

Doan Van Hau was the man of the match with two goals. Do Hung Dung scored the other.

The women's team also put on a display of courage, strength and fighting spirit to beat eternal opponents Thailand by a goal in extra time. Many players fought through cramps and with bandaged legs in the final on December 8.

In the second minute of extra time, Pham Hai Yen scored the winning goal for Vietnam by heading in from close range.

It was their sixth gold in the SEA Games and the second in a row.

Also at the biennial games, swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, nicknamed Vietnam's "Little Mermaid", was named the best woman athlete after winning six gold medals and two silvers.

Athletics won Vietnam the most golds, 16, followed by wrestling (12) and swimming (10).

Soaring high in FIFA rankings

Vietnam's women football team parade the national flag after defending their SEA Games gold medal against Thailand in the Philippines, December 8, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

After a successful year Vietnam ended 2019 in 94th place in the men's FIFA rankings and 32nd in the women's rankings.

The Golden Dragons added 13 points to their rankings tally with a win against the UAE and a draw against Thailand at the World Cup qualification in November. As a result, they are now 14th in Asia and top in Southeast Asia with 1,258 points.

This is Vietnam’s second consecutive year in the top 100. They closed last year at an even 100th.

The Golden Girls jumped two places in the rankings thanks to their SEA Games gold medal.

With 1,665 points, the Vietnamese women are currently the strongest in Southeast Asia and ranked sixth in Asia behind Australia (7th), Japan (10th), North Korea (11st), China (15th), and South Korea (20th).

Challenges lie ahead

Dang Van Lam blocks Thailand's penalty with his right leg. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Vietnam had a successful run by staying unbeaten in the ongoing World Cup 2022 Asia zone qualifiers.

They had to settle for a 0-0 draw away against Thailand in their first match in September at the Thammasat University Stadium.

Against Malaysia at Hanoi's My Dinh Stadium, they picked up their first win thanks to a Quang Hai goal in the 40th minute. The team then beat Indonesia 3-1, showing good control throughout the match and having more possession.

Coach Park's players continued their winning streak on home turf with a 1-0 victory against fancied UAE, which took them to the top of group G after the first round of matches.

Goalkeeper Lam has been brilliant, even saving a penalty kick with his foot against Thailand. After the second draw between the two teams, Vietnam remained on top of the group with 11 points, followed by Malaysia, Thailand, the UAE, and Indonesia.

But there is still a long way to go. The Golden Dragons are scheduled to face Malaysia on March 31, Indonesia on April 6 and the UAE on June 9.

Dang Khoa