|If the Gold Stars can beat the Blue Samurai this Thursday night, it will already be a Tet like no other; ultimate semi-final or final glories or not. — Photo tinthethao.com.vn
By Terry Hartney
There is a perfect storm brewing for Vietnam in the coming fortnight as family and friends come together for their annual celebrative binge of being Vietnamese for the lunar new year festival, called Tet.
For the past week or so, the focus has been on reunions to do with work, shared university, schooling and other relationships dating far back in time.
Soon the family takes over, and the eating and drinking intensifies, punctuated by group visits to forbears’ graves, temples and relatives, particularly in countryside ancestral villages. (One of the traditional arguments against marrying outside of Vietnamese blood is that a foreigner can never really be a part of this ancestor worship process).
Mixed in with all of this is the unexpected progress of the Gold Stars from Vietnam in the current football Asian Cup being held in the United Arab Emirates.
Vietnamese people, patriots all to their bootstraps, were sent over the rapidly fading old moon two nights ago after a penalty shootout against the more fancied Jordanians sent their team the furthest it has ever got in the continental competition – all the way to the quarterfinals.
The team of studio commentators on Vietnam TV even spontaneously stood and broke into the ‘unofficial’ national anthem which roughly translates as “Uncle Ho’s presence was felt on victory day”, a reference to the liberation of HCM City and consequential reunification of Viet Nam in 1975.
For if there is one thing which Vietnamese grasp as an indicator of their progress as a nation after it decided to reintegrate its isolated, rural-based and impoverished economy into the global economy over 30 years ago, it is football.
The debate over which foreign football culture you should emulate, which affects the perennial debate between choosing a foreign or local coach, over training techniques, team selection processes and how many journeyman professional foreign footballers you should allow in the local competition (mainly African here) has gone on endlessly in this period – mirroring the national debate over social and economic reform.
Official stories about the need to reform football in the early days of renewal of Vietnam in the early 1990s indeed used to talk about the need to “industrialize” it.
With little success – until now.
The Gold Stars recently won their second ever Suzuki Cup, the name for the subregional competition of the 11 Southeast Asian countries every four years which prepared them for the much bigger and stronger Asian Cup, of which the Australian Socceroos are the current title holders after winning it for the first time in Sydney in 2015.
The Socceroos from my home country are playing uninspired, conservative, predictable drab football – and their win also on a penalty shootout Tuesday night to enter the quarterfinals against the enigmatic White Wolves of Uzbekistan does not augur well for their defence of the title.
All Vietnamese TV sets were on the earlier match Tuesday night between the perennial continental powerhouses the selfless brave never-say-die Blue Samurai of Japan and the early tournament favourites the Falcons from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, a highly successful, polished, sleek, tall and talented team built and fashioned with an enormous amount of petro-dollars.
The worldly and savvy Blue Samurai, littered with homegrown players whom are veterans in European club football, now stand in the way of “little” Vietnam in the quarterfinals late this week after their 1-0 win over the desert Falcons.
The final is scheduled for the United Arab Emirates on February 1, only four days before the new moon arrives at Tet.
And Vietnamese fans are daring to dream.
The ‘outsider’ coach, Korean Park Hang-seo, is already a national hero because last year he took Vietnam to its first-ever final of the Under 23 Asian championship, and also the same side became the first Vietnamese side in 56 years to finish in the top four of the 2018 Asian Games Under 23 tournament.
Now coach Park is frying bigger fish over in the Middle East with basically the same young and small team – the Gold Stars lack of height often negating their talents elsewhere on the pitch.
There is one very tall player, and he is both an enigma and now a talisman for this run of success.
Goalkeeper Dang Van Lam was not born in Vietnam but Russia – being the child of a Russian mother married to a Vietnamese father.
His inclusion into the squad by the coach raised many eyebrows in this Confucian culture with its strongly developed notions of patrimony and patriotism, which are celebrated at Tet.
You do not see many, if any, foreign-born players in any of the largely homogeneous Confucian cultures elsewhere in northeast Asia covering China, Japan and the two Koreas as well as Vietnam.
As a consequence, Vietnamese media in recent weeks has been full of stories about goalkeeper Lam who has been given the ‘outsider’ nickname of ‘Lam Tay’ (“Tay” meaning westerner).
His parents are artistic dancers, and his father paints as well, which adds more to the exotic appeal of the gangly young goalie.
His presence in the midst of the Gold Stars has almost overshadowed a wider multicultural phenomenon apparent in the Asian Cup.
There was a slight mixture of ethnicities in the only participating South Asian side India.
It becomes a cultural kaleidoscope when looking at the Central Asian and West Asian teams – the former with a strong backing of ethnic Russians but also other influences as well, while many of the West Asian teams resemble a united nation, with nationalized African players perhaps the dominant outside influence.
One could be cruel and highlight Qatar as an example, with many believing the small nation, which surprisingly won the right to host the next mega World Cup finals, is trying to “buy” credibility for its footballing prowess when the world gaze falls on it in 2022.
So as Vietnam hunkers down for Tet, pride in being Vietnamese and the reform process based on “doing it the Vietnamese way” is at a premium, Korean coach and a half Russian goalie notwithstanding.
If the Gold Stars can beat the Blue Samurai this Thursday night, it will already be a Tet like no other; ultimate semi-final or final glories or not.
Vietnam will feel it has caught up.-VNS