Steve Darby talks to Goal.com about Vietnamese football, the AFF Suzuki Cup, and tells us just why the FAM were right to ban foreigners from playing in the M-League
English coach Steve Darby is a well-known name in the ASEAN region for his coaching stints in Singapore and Malaysia, before leading the Vietnam Women’s national team to their first ever gold medal in the SEA Games. Four years ago, he worked as the assistant coach for the Thai team in AFF Suzuki Cup. Recently, he sat down and spoke to Goal.com Vietnam and below is the full transcript of the interview.
Goal.com: You are well-known for coaching many teams in Southeast Asia. Can you let our readers know about your current job?
Steve Darby: I have just completed a year contract in China working for Everton FC, basically coaching and searching for talent in China. Indeed there is massive talent there and I saw many top class young players. The contract may be extended but at the moment I am in Hanoi, which is now home, as I have a Vietnamese wife and a daughter in school here. My wife is also building a hotel in Sapa which we see as a great investment. Ideally I would like to coach in the V-League to be with my family, but there seems to be limited opportunities. I've won the League and Cup in Malaysia and Singapore, and have taken teams to the knockout stages of the Asian Champions league and semi-finals of the AFC Cup. I also now speak reasonable Vietnamese which helps in coaching. So hopefully a V-League opportunity will come along.
As you know, Vietnam were drawn into a tough group in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2012. It’s no doubt that hosts Thailand are favourites while Philippines are getting stronger and stronger. Myanmar can always cause an upset. How do you rate Vietnam’s chance? Which two teams will advance to the semi-finals?
It’s a tough group for Vietnam as that’s been caused by the rapid development of the Philippines national team. They have scoured the world for legitimate Philippines qualified players and this has worked well for them with players coming from the Bundesliga, the Premier League and the Dutch Division one. It’s a football legal policy and they have not gone down the naturalization process that Singapore has. This process can cause many internal conflicts. There must be a number of Vietnamese qualified players playing in the USA and Europe so it could be a way for Vietnam to strengthen its depth of talent.
Thailand has magnificent players, but have not prepared well with the Thai Premier League only just finishing and the Cup still going on. But any team with Teerasil, Datsakorn and Sukha in it has to be respected. The key will be to stop Teerasil from scoring.
Myanmar’s problem is usually self-control! They have talent but often implode and cannot keep players on the pitch. It’s better to play Myanmar last rather than first in the competition!
If I have to choose, I will go for Vietnam and Thailand to go through, as Vietnam and Thailand have great players and Vietnam is preparing well. But the key factor will be the result of the Philippines game.
What is strength and weakness of Vietnam national team in your opinion?
The strength is of course their attitude in that Vietnamese players always want to win and are hard dedicated players. They are also being well prepared at the moment - playing a number of matches and working on the team aspect. The key will be avoidance of injuries! Often teams train too hard when they go into a national camp and star players get overuse injuries. National camps should be about recovery and regeneration in the physical sense and team work on the tactical sense. There is not much time for anything else. It will be interesting to see where and how Cong Vinh is played. I thought Calisto handled this area well and maximized his talent. Another factor will be the pressure induced by the media, the players have to ignore this and also be protected and supported by the staff. They have the talent it’s the other factors in the preparation that will be the key.
Which Vietnamese player impresses you most at present? Do you think Vietnamese players are good enough to play abroad?
Obviously Le Cong Vinh, even though he cost me a huge bonus in 2008 when he scored a last minute winner versus Thailand in the Suzuki Cup final. He is a very mature and intelligent player both on and off the pitch. I have met him a few times in Hanoi and he speaks very well about Vietnamese football. I have no doubt he could play in a European league such as Holland or Portugal. I have known and coached many Australian players who have played in Europe and they were not as talented as Cong Vinh.
I have also been very impressed with Tan Tai and Minh Duc, both top class professionals and quality midfield players. It’s also been great to see the development of Hong San in goal. He was man of the tournament in the 2008 Suzuki Cup and he was at the Nhon Academy when he was a young keeper and I always remember he worked so hard. The Bong da nu used to play against the Vietnam U23s in camp and we used to swap keepers with Hong Son playing for us, he was top class in both his performances and his attitude. I also thought Van Quyen was going to be a great player, who had massive talent.
When I first came here in 2001, there were 3 players who I had no doubt could have played in any league in Europe. Bao Khanh, Le Huynh Duc and the best player I have seen in South East Asia - Hong Son, when he played for The Cong. A top class midfield player who should have gone to Europe. I tried to sign two of them when I was in Singapore but could never get their club’s permission.
Having worked in Malaysia for many years, what do you think about Malaysian football? What factor brought them success in recent years?
Malaysia is now almost Club Malaysia! They are by far the best prepared national team in the region. They play regular games against quality opposition and also have a strong younger age group teams playing as a club team in Singapore. The biggest and bravest decision the FAM made was to ban foreigners for a few years - which allowed strikers and playmakers to develop and get valuable game time in the M-League. Players such as Norshahrul Idlan and Safee Sali have matured into a deadly strike force. If you look at the V-League you will see most of the foreigners play up front and take the place of local strikers. Also, most of the strikers are big and powerful, which alters the style of play in a league. It’s a decision that has positives and negatives but well worth discussing as a nation and Malaysia has certainly reaped the benefits at international level by being brave. I always believe that a foreigner should fulfill a number of criteria. He should be better than the locals to both justify the salary and bring in crowds, and he must also be a good professional off the field to add value to the team and act as a role model. I think it is crazy to have foreigners on the bench and also to bring players who are basically selfish and just playing for themselves and money.
And finally, if one day you are offered to be head coach of Vietnam national team, will you take it?
Of course it would be a great honour. I have coached the Bong da Nu when they won the first ever SEA Games gold for Vietnam in football and it would be superb to coach the men’s national team. I have coached against them in the Suzuki Cup and I have the utmost respect for the players. I suppose you could also say I am half Vietnamese now, so it would be a double honour for me. However, there are some excellent Vietnamese coaches such as Thanh Hung and of course I think Le Huynh Duc will develop from a great player into a great coach - he has all the attributes and of course has already been successful. But you would never say no to this honour and the potential in Vietnamese football is huge.