|Striker Cù Thị Huỳnh Như dreams of playing in the World Cup. Photo courtesy of VFF
Last year was full of tough challenges, but it was a lucky one for Cù Thị Huỳnh Như who went from strength to strength, and is aiming even higher in the year ahead.
The national women's football team captain is now preparing for the biggest dream of her career: winning a berth at the 2023 World Cup.
"Despite a year of pandemic, I was lucky to have opportunities to take part in, and was proud that my club HCM City won both the National Cup and National Championship trophies," said Như, who was voted the MVP of the latter tournament for the fourth time in a row, and was top scorer with seven goals.
"After five months being sidelined due to COVID-19, our results were amazing. These national competitions are also good chance for us to prepare for the Asian Cup," said Như, who has just flown back from one month of intensive training in Spain, with her teammates in the national squad.
She is pleased with her performance in Europe as she assisted two and scored one in three friendly matches in Spain, which saw Việt Nam register two wins and a draw against local women's clubs.
The results have strengthened her confidence ahead of the upcoming 2022 Asian Women's Cup in India, from January 20 to February 6, which serves as qualification for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
In India, ASEAN champions Việt Nam are in Group C with Japan, South Korea and Myanmar, with the two first considered powerhouses who have dominated the continent for years. Japan are defending champions.
|Việt Nam's striker Cù Thị Huỳnh Như (right) vies for a ball against Thailand's defender Phonphirun Philawan during the 30th SEA Games final in 2019. Photo laodong.vn
Five top teams will qualify directly for the World Cup via the knockout stages, and two more will advance to the inter-confederation play-offs.
Despite being in what is considered the group of death, Như is positive and thinks Việt Nam has a great chance to advance to the first World Cup in its history.
"After the draw, I was a little disappointed because we are in a tough group again. I don't understand why we often receive such an unlucky draw," she said.
"Japan and South Korea are strong teams with discipline. There are many changes in their line-up with many young players. We have to find suitable tactics against them. Anyway, we are determined that even if it is an impossible task, we must go on. A chance is available, although it is a tiny one."
Như said Việt Nam aimed to get at least three points in the match against Myanmar.
"I myself want to score goals. And then wait for results from other groups to know if we can secure a play-off berth," she said.
"At the 2018 Cup, we were in a tougher group. The players were young, inexperienced and lacked understanding. Now, we are different, we have improved a lot.
"After years of working and playing with each other, we believe that it is time for us to win a World Cup place. We will try hard in every training session, unite together and never give up. We will make it."
The Asian tournament will be held through Việt Nam's traditional Lunar New Year festival. It is the most important celebration and a time for family to be together. Wherever they are, people are expected to be home to celebrate the festival with their families. But Như and her teammates will be on national duty.
"I am away from home for most of the year, but have not ever celebrated Tết (Lunar New Year festival) away. I can't imagine how the feeling will be. I guess my parents will be a little sad as I cannot go along with them to visit relatives as usual," said Như.
"But this is national duty. We are away to compete for an honourable target: the World Cup."
Tết is also a time when she faces the difficult question of when she will settle down and have a family. But Như, who turns 30 in November, has no suitable answer as she wants to contribute to the nation.
|Việt Nam's striker Cù Thị Huỳnh Như (left) runs from Australian defender Alanna Kennedy during their Tokyo Olympic qualification playoff in 2020. Việt Nam lost 2-1 but Như made history as she scored the first goal for Việt Nam in an Olympic playoff. Photo courtesy of VFF
"My relatives ask me a lot. And I am sure, every girl is asked same question. I had my first love when I was at school. But I have been alone for many years. It is a big issue and my coaches even ask me to take more care about my love story," she laughed.
"It is not because football prevents me from loving someone. Actually, I have not felt really moved or in love with anyone. At this time I have had different plans, including those that I have set on since my first days in football. So I am determined to complete all of them before thinking about my personal life."
Như was one of three Vietnamese female players invited to compete in Europe in 2020.
Portuguese side Lank FC completed all the paperwork to bring them, especially Như, to play in the third division of the Campeonato Nacional III. However, at the last second, Như decided to stay home, missing her chance to become the first Vietnamese female player to compete in Europe.
|Striker Cù Thị Huỳnh Như (left) played a key role in HCM City FC's National Cup and National Championship victories in the 2021 season. Photo courtesy of VFF
Part of the reason for her decision was the coronavirus pandemic, which had strongly hit Portugal at the time, with over 560,000 cases and more than 9,000 fatalities.
“It was really a big opportunity for me to try myself in a quality competition. I’d love to go and my coaches and family also encouraged me. However, the pandemic was spreading fast,” Như said.
“If I could go there, I would definitely open a new chapter for Vietnamese football, opening the door to the world for our female players.”
A bigger reason was that Như still had important plans, which would have been scuppered if she went to Portugal.
It was really difficult to find a flight back to Việt Nam and Như would have been quarantined, damaging her fitness ahead of the Asian Cup and the 31st Southeast Asian Games.
The upcoming Games will be Như's last regional tournament, and Như wants to help Việt Nam win the title on home soil.
"I want to be a member of the Việt Nam team to play in a World Cup. It is my biggest dream!" said Như, who is top candidate for the Golden Ball award for her performances in 2021. VNS