|Việt Nam women's football team train at Cẩm Phả Stadium. They are aiming for a record-breaking sixth SEA Games title. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyễn Thị Vân|
HÀ NỘI — With five titles already in the bag, the Vietnamese women's football team know this SEA Games could be a record-breaking event.
Right now, Việt Nam and Thailand are neck-and-neck with five wins apiece. If one of those two nations manages to lift the top prize this year, they will go into SEA Games history books.
But it won't be an easy task for the hosts, as tough, World Cup-level opponents are in their way.
There are seven teams competing for this year's SEA Games crown, divided into two groups. Việt Nam joins the Philippines and Cambodia in Group A, and Thailand, Singapore, Laos and Myanmar make up Group B.
Teams will play in a round-robin format in the group stage, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the semi-finals.
"I am glad that more and more teams are participating in SEA Games. This year, teams like Cambodia and Malaysia have prepared very well for the tournament. This will help women's football develop strongly," Chung said.
“Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines have their own target at the Games. All of them are determined to take the highest result.
"Việt Nam will need to play well every match, beating all if we want to remain champions of the region," he said.
Tough matches but teams ready
Coach Miyo Okamoto of Thailand said SEA Games is a tough competition with many strong teams.
She said there are four strong teams and the chance of winning is split equally between them. Thailand lost to Việt Nam in the race to take the 2023 World Cup slot, so the Thais have a point to prove this time around.
Thailand wants to meet Việt Nam in the final match of the tournament, and take revenge.
"Of course, to reach the final, my players will have to work with the best. I can't say which team will advance to the semi-finals but Thailand will fight hard," Okamoto said.
On the Myanmar side, coach Tin Myint Aung said his team could cause an upset.
"Việt Nam and Thailand are very strong, everyone knows. But my team have been carefully preparing and will try to reach our target. First of all, Myanmar will keep its eyes on the semi-finals," he said.
Alen Stajcic of the Philippines said his team will vie for gold against the hosts.
He said the Filipinos understand Việt Nam pretty well and appreciate the hosts are formidable opponents.
The Philippines come to SEA Games 31 without some of their best players because they are injured, but their replacements will seize the opportunity to shine.
Stajcic said he has made a plan for the Việt Nam match and hopes to surprise their opponents.
Cambodian coach Park Vuthy said that playing against strong rivals at the SEA Games 31 will be a good opportunity for his players to sharpen their skills.
The Cambodia team have been asked to try their best in every game.
Vuthy believes Việt Nam have a good chance of defending their title thanks to their strong players and home advantage. However, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines are favourites to stop them.
Coach Vongmisay Soubouakham from Laos agrees that Việt Nam are No 1 in ASEAN, and will be even stronger when playing at home. However, Thailand, the Philippines, and Myanmar bring with them some difficult challenges.
He thinks matches involving these teams will be aggressive matches and whoever comes out top will be deserving winners.
Coach Stephen Ng said his Singapore players have learnt their lessons from previous tournaments against powerful teams.
In Group A, Việt Nam will play their first match against the Philippines on May 11. Both will appear at the 2023 World Cup.
Three days later, they will play Cambodia.
In Group B, Myanmar will play Laos and Thailand will face off with Singapore on May 10. Their next fixtures will be on May 13 and May 15.
All matches will be free for supporters at the Cẩm Phả Stadium, in Quảng Ninh Province, about 200km from Hà Nội.
Việt Nam's preparation
Players train on the beach to boost their fitness for the Games. VNA/VNS Photo Nguyễn Thị Vân
Coach Mai Đức Chung will have most of his best players to defend the title. They all competed recently to qualify for the World Cup next year in Australia and New Zealand, for the very first time.
Chung regretted that his quality midfielder Thái Thị Thảo cannot join his team to defend the SEA Games 31 title, due to a knee injury.
"Thảo is a good player. She cannot play in these Games because of injury, which can happen to anybody in football," coach Chung said. "Luckily, we have a backup plan."
Chung said his team has been training in Quảng Ninh for weeks. Players have reached their peak and are ready to play.
Việt Nam set a target of winning their sixth title, which would be a record at the Games. Currently, Việt Nam and Thailand have won SEA Games five times apiece.
In the 2019 Games, Việt Nam beat the hosts Philippines 2-0 in the semi-finals before defeating Thailand 1-0 to lift the trophy. — VNS