Striker Le Cong Vinh rose to the occasion and scored a header to tie the game up off a good free-kick from captain Minh Phuong. That goal was enough for Vietnam to claim the throne of South-East Asia football.
My Dinh stadium exploded in jubilation. Minutes later in the streets of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other big cities, tens of thousands of supporters poured onto the streets in exuberant celebration.
It was as if Vietnam had just won the World Cup.
The AFF Cup is not a major trophy; not until recently did FIFA even recognize it in their official competition system. Yet winning it still brought exhilaration, or one can call it ecstasy, to the Vietnamese fans.
It was the first time their team had won a regional trophy!
For a football-crazed country, the wait had been far too long. In South East Asia, Vietnam had never been able to get out of the shadow of the ‘giant’ Thailand. Almost every decent run in competitions like the SEA Games or Tiger Cup (predecessor of the AFF Cup) ended with defeat at the hands of Thailand.
And when Thailand, for one reason or another did not make it to the finals, Vietnam would lose, painfully, to another team, whether it be Singapore, Myanmar or even the Philippines.
All that made winning the AFF Cup 2008 one of the best moments in many fans life and they all long to relive the joy that the victory brought. Yet after eight years and three more AFF Cups, all they have received is more pain and disappointment.
New year, new hope
As always, Vietnam will fly to this year’s host country Myanmar bringing with them high expectations for a championship title. The 2016 season has so far been the best year for football in the team’s history.
The futsal national team unexpectedly made it to round of 16 in the Futsal World Cup. The U16 squad played impressively in Asia U16 Championship, got to the quarter-final round, and were only short of a win to get the World Cup ticket.
More recently, the U19 team secured a place in next year’s U20 World Cup by progressing as far as semi-final round in the Asia U19 Championship.
The national team themselves have also displayed the ability to compete at a high level. They won 10 of 14 official matches under new coach Nguyen Huu Thang, and most recently beat regional arch-rival Indonesia 3-2 at My Dinh Stadium.
The short-pass, high-tempo style that Huu Thang has been trying to institute seems the perfect fit with the current crop of Vietnamese footballers. It is a diametrically opposite image of Vietnam under former coach Toshiya Miura, and the overuse of a long ball strategy.
Unlike Miura, Huu Thang is flexible enough to mix his team with players of different if not contrasting styles. Vietnam now is a good mix between experienced veterans like captain Cong Vinh, winger Thanh Luong, defender Dinh Luat and young exciting prospects like midfielders Xuan Truong, Tuan Anh, striker Cong Phuong or defenders Van Thanh, Ngoc Hai.
Huu Thang is also able to harmonize the ‘conflict’ between players from SLNA, best known for their hard-working but also a little bit violent style, and players from HAGL, who have more technical quality yet seem more fragile.
His team, therefore, can play some mouth-watering exciting football, while at the same time can throw bodies into the lines and defend to the death.
High expectations, as seen in previous competitions, can be Huu Thang and company’s biggest enemy in this AFF campaign. Some people on the inside have already voiced concern about the fact that the team is being judged by comparison to the success of other Vietnam teams.
Can they achieve as high as the U19 squad? Or can they play as bravely as the futsal team?
When the results are still positive, then that’s OK. But if Vietnam, for example, start the group stage with a draw or lose against co-host Myanmar, then the pressure will surely mount at an uncontrollable pace. They may derail or even collapse.
That was the scenario at AFF Cup 2012, when Vietnam was out from the group stage. The truth of the matter is that has been the case in almost every competition Vietnam has ever taken part in!
On the field, that kind of pressure is being put on the defence. In the last five matches, Vietnam has let in seven goals, a very worrying figure if you know that they conceded only four goals in Huu Thang’s first seven matches.
In their latest match, against Indonesia, Vietnam found themselves chasing the game twice after some personal errors and soft defending. Those kinds of errors could prove deadly once Vietnam enters the competition!
There is one big issue in the holding midfielder position, too. When Vietnam is in defending phase, they often deploy a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Nguyen Hoang Thinh the man responsible for the dirty job in front of the defence.
No one can do it better than him. Without him, Vietnam is extremely vulnerable to counter-attacks, which was painfully exposed in the last match with Indonesia. Yet Hoang Thinh is very much injury-prone. Nobody could say if his body may disappoint him, and the team, or not!
Unlike the predecessor Miura, Huu Thang has put a lot of effort on improving the team’s attacking ability. That attempt pays off. Vietnam has scored quite a few goals from smooth attacking moves. They scored four against Chinese Taipei, two against Syria, Hongkong, five against Indonesia in two matches, and five more against North Korea.
The main threat of Vietnam comes from the flanks. In Nguyen Thanh Luong, Vu Minh Tuan, Dinh Thanh Trung, Nguyen Van Toan, they have some pacey and tricky wingers who can somehow find a way to penetrate the opposition’s box before passing back to a teammate in better position or finishing the move themselves.
Long ball from the back and vertical passing are two other dangerous weapons of Vietnam. When the midfield is blocked, they can easily switch to long-ball tactics thanks to the vision and passing ability of central defender Que Ngoc Hai. Or they can count on Luong Xuan Truong, who is capable of breaking through two or three lines of the oppositions by accurate vertical passes.
The man to watch
It is fair to say that Luong Xuan Truong is shouldering the hope of the whole nation.
One of the most important members of the ‘great’ U19 side, Xuan Truong has improved a lot in the last two years, especially after his move to the South Korean club in Incheon. It can be said Xuan Truong is the rare all-round midfielder that Vietnam football has been longing for years, even decades.
Under Huu Thang, Xuan Truong’s position is indispensable. He is the man taking charge of dictating the team’s play through his good touch, positioning and a wide range of passing. His calmness on the ball is the precious asset of the team.
Moreover, he can create chances, assist, and even score himself. The young player from HAGL is also a free kick specialist, and a decent shooter.
AFF Cup 2016 will be the first big show for the 21-year-old. If he can withstand the huge pressure and play at his full potential, then Vietnam will have a decent chance to win the competition, and bring back the ecstasy of AFF Cup 2008 to their fans.