Lê Đình Thăng (right) in a football tournament for retired famous players in 2014. Photo thanhnien.vn
HÀ NỘI — Retired centre half Lê Đình Thăng was a famous partner of the late, great Phạm Huỳnh Tam Lang for Saigon Port more than 40 years ago, and he's remembered fondly to this day.
When talking about famous players from HCM City and the south after 1975, people often mention Lang, Đỗ Cẩu, Dư Tân, Bùi Thái Huệ, Phạm Văn Lắm, Trần Kim Sang, and of course Thăng.
Born in the southern province of Cần Thơ in 1949, Thăng joined the southern football team before 1975. After that, he competed for Saigon Port until 1986. He helped Saigon Port win many titles of HCM City A1 tournaments and the National A1 Championship (now V.League 1) in 1986.
Despite his small and slight frame, Thăng's agility, leaping ability and tight marking meant he was a nightmare for every striker he went up against.
In Vietnamese, Thăng means “increasing” and true to his name, the defender always seemed to get the maximum out of his abilities.
Alongside Lang, Thăng created a firm wall in front of the goalkeeper Lưu Kim Hoàng.
Thanks to his consistency and smarts, Thăng often bested strikers who may have been ore naturally gifted.
“I didn’t have the height of a defender. I am only 1.71m but I moved quickly and was able to judge the ball to cut it out. I still remember that Saigon Port coach Nguyễn Thành Sự often told me and Lang to support each other,” said Thăng.
“When I played, I was not afraid of any strikers. For example, in the north, there was Cao Cường of the Military team who was a comprehensive, dangerous and unpredictable striker and Từ Như Hiển of Hà Nội Police who had a flexible left foot. In the south, there was Võ Thành Sơn of the Department of Industry who was very good at dealing with packed defences of four-five players,” said Thăng.
The one match that sticks in Thăng's memory even at 72 years old was between Saigon Port and Military team in the sixth national A1 football championship in 1986, in which the Port beat Military 2-0.
“In the previous five tournaments, the Military team had won the tournament twice in the 1982 and 1983 while we had never been crowned. In the final round that time, the Military were more favoured by professionals,” said Thăng.
“At that time, Saigon Port were in the process of transferring between generations because many good players had stopped playing, so the squad had many young players such as Nguyễn Văn Hòa, Nguyễn Thanh Tùng, Đặng Trần Chỉnh, Hà Vương Ngầu Nại, Phạm Văn Tám and Đặng Trần Phúc. But we had our own belief and relished a big match,” said Thăng.
“This was the best match in my career. Given the task of leading the defence and reminding the whole team to stay focused, I asked my teammates to constantly swap positions to surprise the opponent. Sometimes my teammates rushed to challenge for the ball and I was the last man. Thankfully, I successfully completed the mission with my teammates to prevent the attacks of the opponent to win this important match,” said Thăng.
With five wins in phase 2, Saigon Port won the national championship for the first time, while the Military team won the silver medal with four wins and one loss.
After this tournament, Thăng and goalkeeper Hoàng retired from competition.
No desire to coach
“During the process of playing, there were many times Saigon Port asked me to help coach the team. I thought about it a lot, but finally, there were some issues. I like football, but I don't like coaching. More than 30 years ago and maybe still now the role of an assistant coach is sometimes not respected, easily interfered with by senior officials. A coach without a certain 'position' in society is unlikely to complete the task. So I was ready to be a bridge to command the players on the pitch, while 'off the field' is absolutely not interfering,” said Thăng.
Following retirement, Thăng was helped by Saigon Port's board of directors to work in the port but he felt his health wouldn't allow him to do the work.
Leaving the port, he had to do many things to make a living such as assembling bicycles in a small shop, selling shoes and other manual labour.
He stuck with odd jobs for nearly 10 years until 1996 when he accepted an invitation to instruct amateur teams and organise matches at football pitches for people of all ages in District 8.
“I don’t have a degree, so I've never considered myself a coach. I only bring experience and stories in my life to exchange, encourage and train young people, help them nurture their passion and show enthusiasm for football,” said Thăng.
“At that time, many people came to District 8, turning this playground into a movement playground for all ages. It was also a period when I was happy to relive my passion. In addition to training, I also played football to maintain my fitness,” Thăng added.
For nearly four years ago, because of age, Thăng has decided to quit all football-related jobs to support his family.
Now, Thăng’s three children have their own house near his house at Đoàn Văn Bơ Street in District 4.
“Our life is now peaceful, not so redundant, but we know how to save money, so it's much less difficult." — VNS