|Sông Lam Nghệ An star Phan Văn Đức (right) vies for the ball against Thanh Hóa midfielder Trịnh Văn Lợi during their V.League 1 match on Sunday. SLNA lost 1-0 and face the risk of relegation. Photo courtesy of VPF
HÀ NỘI Of the 14 teams in the V.League 1, Sông Lam Nghệ An (SLNA) are the only never to have played below the top tier.
That unblemished record is in danger though, as they sit bottom of the table with only 10 points from 12 matches.
After their 1-0 loss to Thanh Hóa on Sunday, acting skipper Phan Văn Đức emotionally posted on his Facebook page: "It seems that SLNA have not been at the bottom for years. All the coaches and players look sad. The band on my arm is so heavy. I have told myself to try hard all the time and asked teammates to do their best every single match. We do not dream of ranking high, trying to stay (in the league) is our actual task. We hope the supporters will encourage us better. Let's fight brothers! It is a long journey to go."
The result led to the resignation of president Nguyễn Hồng Thanh and coach Ngô Quang Trường last week, a seismic change for the club.
SLNA's previous nightmare was in 2018 when they also languished in last place, but eventually came back with eight wins in a row and finished fourth.
The team's worst-ever finish was last year when they placed No 10.
Brilliant past, tough present
SLNA are among the most well-known clubs in Việt Nam.
The club have produced many of the nation's biggest talents, including Phạm Văn Quyến, Việt Nam's greatest ever striker Lê Công Vinh, and current national team members Quế Ngọc Hải, midfielder Nguyễn Trọng Hoàng and forward Đức.
They have won three V.League 1 titles, three National Cup trophies and four National Super Cups.
The club are also renowned for success at lower age levels, with five U21 championship triumphs, five for the U19s, eight for the U17s and one for the U15s.
However, recent years have been tough for the team, with their latest title the 2017 National Cup and their last V.League 1 trophy in 2011.
The biggest problem they have faced in the last decade is a lack of finances.
Executive director Hồ Văn Chiêm said his players received humble salaries which are enough to support their daily life, but not enough to give them a comfortable living like players at other clubs.
The lack of cash has stopped the club from extending the contracts of key local and foreign players, as well as hampered efforts to make outside signings.
Many of their homegrown players such as Hải, Hoàng, Ngô Hoàng Thịnh and Phạm Khắc Ngọc have left the team in recent years.
This year, SLNA have three foreigners on their books but they have contributed only two goals to the team, forcing the team to rely almost entirely on the talented Đức.
The Vietnamese international has scored five goals this season, making up 71 per cent of the team's total goals, a percentage far higher than any other player in the V.League 1.
Former coach Trường admitted that SLNA totally depend on the 25-year-old and other teams have been able to shut them down by marking them out of the game.
SLNA are also suffering an injury crisis that is keeping their key players off the pitch.
Apart from midfielder Đặng Văn Lắm who is out with a severe thigh injury, captain Hoàng Văn Khánh, defender Nguyễn Sỹ Nam and striker Hồ Phúc Tịnh have also been out of action for several weeks.
As they are only three points away from Sài Gòn FC in the relegation playoff spot, SLNA still have a chance to stay in the division and their first task will be to grab three points against Hà Nội FC on Friday at home.
Hà Nội are also in trouble this season. They are seventh with 17 points and face the previously unthinkable possibility of finishing outside of the top six.
The capital city side have struggled defensively this season with 14 goals conceded, though they have been potent in front of goal, netting 17 times.
In their 25 meetings, SLNA only have five wins to go with 10 draws and 10 defeats.
Coach Nguyễn Huy Hoàng of SLNA said: “We must accept challenges. We are working hard and united to get through difficulties."
Meanwhile, captain Khánh aimed to inspire his teammates on social media by posting: "Although everything is against us, we are still together. Hold hands, Sông Lam Nghệ An will never give up!" VNS