Việt Nam won the AFF Cup for the second time in 2018. — Photo baochinhphu.vn
I don’t think there’s a more popular man in Việt Nam than Park Hang-seo.
The South Korean’s trademark bald head is used to advertise everything from sausages to Shopee and back when fans could attend games, hundreds would show up carrying pictures of him as if he was some sort of deity.
Park has plenty of credit in the bank from fans and his bosses at the Việt Nam Football Federation (VFF) alike due to his success with the national team, and I think it’s time for him to cash some of that credit in.
Last week, the draw for the rescheduled 2020 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup was held, pitting Việt Nam in Group B alongside Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.
Never mind that the December-January tournament will be held in the middle of the country’s first foray into the third round of World Cup qualification, the VFF have already made it clear they want Park et al to defend the title they won three years ago.
However, being a leader means making unpopular decisions, and I think it’s time Park made one by sending a second string team to the AFF Cup.
Playing in the third round of World Cup qualification means playing at the top tier of Asian football, and if Việt Nam want to stay at that level, it’s time to start acting like it.
If a full strength Vietnamese squad is sent to the AFF Cup (wherever it’s held) they would likely come home as winners, but what would that prove?
Việt Nam have been the top side in Southeast Asia for the last few years and showed it by winning the 2018 AFF Cup and advancing from the second round of World Cup qualification past Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in Group G.
The likes of Nguyễn Quang Hải, Quế Ngọc Hải and Nguyễn Công Phượng have little to gain in their development as individuals or as a team from playing in another AFF Cup, but the next generation do.
The defeats to Saudi Arabia and Australia a few weeks ago mean qualifying for the Qatar World Cup next year is extremely unlikely, but the 2026 edition is a different story.
With the expansion to 48 teams and therefore eight spots for Asian nations in 2026, Việt Nam have a chance of qualifying with this golden generation of players.
What would give them an even better chance is developing a few younger players between now and then to challenge for places in what is largely a settled team.
Players on the fringes of the squad like Trần Minh Vương, Bùi Hoàng Việt Anh and Nguyễn Thanh Bình, as well as some of the most promising U22 players like Nguyễn Hải Long and Võ Nguyên Hoàng, could gain a lot of valuable experience at the AFF Cup.
Would they bring the trophy home? Probably not, but if the VFF have their sights set on something other than being a big fish in the small pond that is Southeast Asian football, that shouldn’t matter.
It wouldn’t be a popular decision, but coach Park’s job isn’t to be popular, he’s trying to take Vietnamese football where it’s never gone before. — VNS