Comment: A New Dawn For Vietnam

Vietnam have become only the third team to win South-East Asia's premier prize. It has been an exciting time and perhaps there is more to come from the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup winners...
It has been a great three weeks and it has really put South East Asia’s regional tournament on the map.

If anyone doubted the importance of the AFF Suzuki Cup they should have been in Bangkok and especially Hanoi for the two legs of the final.

Vietnam’s win over Thailand sent the nation wild with delight and it ends what has been a very good year or so for football in Vietnam.

Not only did the team, as co-hosts, make the quarter-final of the 2007 Asian Cup but a year later, the Under-22 team lifted the Merdeka Cup. With the SEA Games taking place in Laos in 2009, hopes are high that the Golden Stars can build on their success.

Few would begrudge that. Few are as passionate about the beautiful game as the Vietnamese. In the past however, it has been more about Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard than Le Cong Vinh and Doung Hong Son but this triumph has made national heroes of these local stars.

It has been a long time coming. In 1998 Vietnam hosted the competition and were favourites to win. They got to the final only to lose to Singapore. That was as good as it got until this month.

The group stage went to form. Thailand defeated Vietnam in Phuket and Henrique Calisto’s men had to be content with second place and a semi-final with defending champions Singapore.

The Reds flew at their visitors in Hanoi but just couldn’t break the deadlock. Singapore were not only relieved with the goalless draw, they thought it had all but cemented their passage to the final.

They reckoned without Nguyen Quang Hai who scored the only goal of the two-legged tie to silence the Kallang Roar at the Singapore National Stadium. They also reckoned without the player of the tournament, goalkeeper Hong Son who stopped everything that the Lions could throw at him.

It was team spirit, hard work and organization that took Vietnam to the final and like all teams that win tournaments; they came good at the right time and got better as the competition progressed.

A 2-1 win in Bangkok in the first leg of the final was a surprise for the hosts but Thailand were facing a different team than the one they defeated in the group stage.

"The team have certainly grown where they now play under less pressure and are more confident," said Calisto.

With the entire nation celebrating after that Bangkok win, there was a danger that the team and fans would see the final as over even before the start of the second leg in Hanoi.

Any complacency was blown away midway through the first half as tournament top scorer Teerasil Dangda headed Thailand into a first half lead.

With no away goals, extra time was looming when Cong Vinh headed home a free-kick in the 93rd minute. It was a cruel end for Thailand who will complain about that free-kick but Vietnam are deserved winners.

The trophy is the first major prize that the nation has won. And, as of this morning, Vietnam fans can say that the team has finally emerged as a player on the regional scene.

It was done in style as Vietnam defeated the only two past winners of the trophy on their way to their triumph. The trick now though is to sustain this success.

One way will be to keep the canny Calisto. The Portuguese tactician has transformed Vietnam, always a hard-working and passionate team, into a well-organised and more intelligent outfit.

Hanoi has long been a tough place for other teams to visit but now, Vietnam are capable of winning anywhere in South East Asia. But that is only the first step.

Next comes qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup and a group that contains China, Syria and Lebanon. It is a good opportunity to face three teams that will provide tricky away trips without being continental powerhouses.

It goes without saying that none of that trio will relish a trip to My Dinh Stadium but the challenge is for Vietnam to pick up points overseas – traditionally not the team’s strong point.

But that is in the future. For now, there is a third name on the trophy. Vietnam have earned the right to celebrate and enjoy their time in the spotlight.

John Duerden

Asia Editor