|Nguyễn Hai Long seen competing in the V.League 1 this year. The talented midfielder has been called up to the national team for the World Cup qualifying campaign. — Photo sport5.vn|
HÀ NỘI — Whatever happens in the UAE next month, whether he makes it onto the pitch or not, Nguyễn Hai Long's dream has come true.
He has finally made a national team squad as one of coach Park Hang-seo's 30 players to compete in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
"After a long time on the bench because of injury, I had no chance to compete (in domestic competition). I was a little worried but happy to be called to the U22 team. I will work hard to show that I deserve to have a place in the first team for the SEA Games," Long of Than Quảng Ninh told media recently.
Ten days later, he could not believe his ears when he was told he had been selected for the senior team. The 20-year-old midfielder is one of the two youngest members of the contingent who will vie for a berth in the last qualification round for the 2022 World Cup.
Born in Quảng Ninh Province in 2000, Long joined the Viettel Football Training Centre when he was 11 and started a new life away from family in Hà Nội.
"Living in the environment of the military, apart from football knowledge, I learnt many things that I believe made me an independent and disciplined player today," said Long.
During his years at the centre, Long and his U13 teammates secured a national championship silver and a trophy for the U15s.
However, the boy failed to make the grade at Viettel and was sent home in 2016.
"The coaches said I had good technique but was too small to be a footballer. Everything collapsed in front of my eyes," recalled Long.
The 15-year-old cried rivers of tears, but never gave up.
Long asked for a trial with Than Quảng Ninh's junior team and was recruited to the team.
"I knew my disadvantage was my tiny figure as well as other weaknesses since I was with Viettel. Then I asked myself to work harder than anyone. They practised once, I did it twice, they ran two rounds, I ran four. After every training session, I went to the gym to improve my physique. I want to show that small size is no problem in football," said Long.
After spending three years in the junior squad, Long was brought into the senior team in 2020 as coach Phan Thanh Hùng wanted to sharpen his young midfielder's skills.
When veteran teammate Nguyễn Hải Huy suffered a severe leg injury just three matches into the season and was sidelined for a long time, Long was chosen to replace him and it was his time to shine.
"I could not have imagined playing in the V.League 1 in my first season with the senior team. It was like a dream. Yes, I was a little lucky but if I did not do a good job the coaches wouldn't have picked me," he said.
"Among many quality and experienced players, I was chosen. I told myself to work harder to show Hùng was right to trust me."
After experiencing nerves in his first match, Long quickly caught up with the pace of the national premier league and became more confident.
"Honestly, I felt so small when playing among and against veterans, especially in that match I faced former Viettel teammates and my idol midfielder Vũ Minh Tuấn," he said.
"I watched and learnt many things from him when he was at Quảng Ninh. His 2016 AFF Cup goal against Indonesia in the semi-finals inspired me a lot, " said Long, who also idolises Sergio Busquets of Barcelona due to his simple but effective playing style that he wants to emulate.
|Nguyễn Hai Long (right) practises with the U22 squad in Hà Nội early May. — Photo courtesy of VFF|
At the tender age of 19, Long received high praise from coaches, club officials and teammates.
"Long played smartly. He is flexible and agile and can play with both legs. He can also control the ball really well," coach Hùng said when Long joined the first team.
"Like (Nguyen) Quang Hải, (Nguyen) Công Phượng and (Nguyen) Văn Toàn, he has natural skills, bravery and a strong mind, which are difficult to acquire, or in other words can't be taught," he said.
"He still has to learn a lot but he will be the future of Quảng Ninh," he added.
Meanwhile Quảng Ninh President Phạm Thanh Hùng said he was young but played like a veteran, similarly to key midfielder Hải Huy.
"I have discussed with coaches to give him more space on the pitch so he could bring into play his abilities while asking Long to improve his body shape which would help him to fight better in one-on-one situations," he said.
The more Long played the better he played. In his first season, he netted twice and assisted two goals, helping Quảng Ninh finish fourth.
"I can run well for 90 minutes but I also want to run and assist and create chances to score at the same time. I don't have a big target but just to play as best as I can in all matches,” he said.
His performance brought him a berth in the national U22 squad summon last July and he was also called up to the national team in December but was sent home because of injury.
After surgery, Long was sidelined and missed most of the first half of the 2021 season.
His outstanding abilities impressed Park so much that when he was fully recovered several weeks ago he was immediately returned to the U22s who are preparing for the upcoming SEA Games in Hà Nội.
|Nguyễn Hai Long is in a training with the national team who will compete at the 2022 World Cup second qualifier next month. — Photo courtesy of VFF|
“I could not sleep when I heard the news although that camp was to test players only. It was great to have a wonderful experience with talented players and coaches. This time it's officially for a big tournament, I can't explain how happy I felt," said Long.
On the SEA Games, Long said defending the gold medal while playing at home was big pressure for anyone, but it was the responsibility of each player.
Long's current duty is now three matches in the World Cup qualifiers.
Together with his teammates, he has had the first training sessions in Dubai. They will have a friendly match against Jordan on May 31, the last touches to perfect the team.
"Everything has come to me quickly. It is really lucky for me. But it is just the first steps. I still need to improve myself to gain a title with Quảng Ninh. And like many other players, I can't wait to wear the national jersey for the first time," he said. — VNS