It would be churlish to assume that just with one win in the Round of 16 of the 2019 Asian Cup, Vietnam has overtaken Thailand as the kings of football in Southeast Asia but having reigned supreme for such a long time, The War Elephants could well be finally looking up to what another country in the region is doing.
The competition isn't over yet for Vietnam but their achievement in knocking out Jordan to reach the quarterfinal stage of the biggest football competition in Asia isn't something that can be brushed aside as a one-off. This comes after a glorious 2018 for them where they reached the AFC U23 Championship final and as well as going on to lift the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time since 2008.
In Park Hang-seo, Vietnam may have found their footballing father who is taking their standard to a whole new level. They did not do so by just sitting back and defending ala what Greece did in the 2004 European Championship. The Golden Dragons plays with a sort of style and panache that belies their relative low FIFA rankings compared to the other teams in the competition.
Reaching where they are right now did not come overnight for Vietnam, in reality it can be traced back to 2016 when they amazingly progressed through the qualification stage to reach the 2017 FIFA World Cup U-20. They were easily knocked out in the group stage but from that squad saw Nguyen Quang Hai, Doan Van Hau, Ha Duc Chinh, Nguyen Tien Linh and Ho Tan Tai maturing into fine players.
The bigger test now for Vietnam isn't whether they can continue further into the Asian Cup or whether they can beat the victors between Japan and Saudi Arabia. Because even if they can, it does not mean that Vietnam have officially earned their place at one of the footballing countries in Asia.
Because all that can be construed as a generational thing, along the lines of a golden generation. The bigger test for Vietnam and Vietnam Football Federation is to ensure that the progress made in the last three years does not dissipate once these group of players grow older or retire. The challenge is to ensure that they continue to push and stay among the best, just like how Japan and South Korea have done.
To an extent, Malaysia are following the same path as Vietnam but with far lesser degree of success. Reaching the quarterfinals of the 2018 AFC U23 Championship and the final of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup is considered by many in the country as very admirable achievement but pales in comparison to what Vietnam have achieved in the same competitions.
In similar ways, there's a good group of young Malaysian players who are progressing from the Under-23 level to the senior side. Some of whom have already earned themselves a permanent place in Tan Cheng Hoe's team while others still have to prove to the Malaysia national team head coach.
When the next Asian Cup qualifiers comes around, it will be sink or swim time for Cheng Hoe and the players. Vietnam has now set the mark with even the mighty Thailand failing to measure up. That gap will be what Malaysia have to breach in the coming years or risk another Asian Cup watching from afar.