|Central role: Midfielder Phạm Thành Lương was a key player in the national team till he retired last year. — Photo tinmoi.vn
by Khiếu Thanh Hà
As he stepped on to the podium and received the Golden Ball trophy for the fourth time, Phạm Thành Lương was not just creating national history, he was moving into a rarefied realm in Vietnamese football - achieving the status of an all-time great.
No one can argue that the midfielder did not deserve this honour for his performance in the 2016 season.
“I voted for Lương. He is the best one. He plays well and contributes a lot to both his club, which won the championship, and the national team. I don’t care how many matches he played. It is about how good he was on the field. Lương has consistently proved his talent and been a key part of every team,” said national U22 coach Hoàng Anh Tuấn.
The award was a fitting culmination of the year for Lương who, together with his Hà Nội FC team, experienced a season of dramatic ups and downs.
Lương played in all 23 matches for Hà Nội FC. He scored only one goal, but it was voted the best of the tournament.
Hà Nội FC started the year with many problems. After its head coach was changed, the club suffered a crisis with five losses in a row and feared they would have their worst season ever.
Yet another change at the top put them on the right track again, and vice-captain Lương came into his own. The midfielder played a key role as his team strung up a series of wins to become national champions.
Hà Nội FC also finished second at the National Cup and won the silver cup at the Super Cup match, losing both finals to arch-rivals Quảng Ninh Coal.
Now, the team is the sole representative of Việt Nam at the Asian Football Confederation’s Champions League’s qualification round.
Lương was also a regular member of the national team, with 13 caps last year. He was part of the squad that won a four-side friendly tournament in Myanmar last June.
He also scored a goal in a friendly that saw Việt Nam beat North Korea 5-2 last October. Việt Nam did not lose a single match in a series of international friendlies, during which it also notched up an impressive 2-0 win over Syria.
Lương sat on the bench in the team that made a semi-final exit from the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup last month, but he made his presence felt as a substitute with a smart pass that helped teammate Vũ Văn Thanh level the result against Indonesia in the semi-final match.
“I am not surprised. I thought of it when I received the invitation from the organisers to the awarding ceremony. It seems that the V.League title was a key element that helped me overcome others to win this award. My teammates also supported me a lot throughout the whole year. I am really happy now that I have four Golden Balls,” Lương said on receiving the award.
“Like other players, I just think about how to play my best for the team, for the fans. I don’t play to win an award or set a record,” Lương said.
“It is my honour to have this, as my contribution is recognised, but I prefer to win the love of the fans, it is much more important to me.”
Emphasising how much of a team player he is, Lương noted that the titles were only certificates for individual athletes. What he wanted was a title for a team which included himself, he said.
With his fourth Golden Ball, Lương moved in front of former national striker Lê Huỳnh Đức, who belonged to Việt Nam’s “golden generation”, and senior teammate Lê Công Vinh, the nation’s best striker. Both of them had won the Golden Ball three times.
Lương won his previous Golden Ball trophies in 2009, 2011 and 2014, and a Bronze Ball in 2015.
Born in 1988 in Phù Lưu Hạ Village in the capital city’s Ứng Hòa District, Lương first trained as a footballer at the age of 15, when he joined a Hà Nội ACB youth team. Two years later, in 2005, his team won a silver medal at the national U21 tournament, and Lương was chosen the best player.
The result gave him a berth on the senior team to play in the V.League, the top tier national competition.
In 2008, Hà Nội ACB was relegated to the First Division, but the team won the National Cup, and Lương was first called to the national team under Portuguese coach Henrique Calisto.
At the tournament, Lương scored two goals and contributed to the team’s victory at the AFF Cup. This was the first and only major title earned by Việt Nam in its history.
Since then, Lương became a regular face in the U23 and national squads, and a permanent member on every club he played for.
He was also one of rare Vietnamese players whose performances caught the eye of international reporters.
The FourFourTwo website said Lương was a player who worked tirelessly down the left, and put in good through balls.
“He is one of Việt Nam’s primary attacking threats and his main specialty is terrorizing the left flank. As the player with the most crosses in the tournament, thus far, his delivery is deadly accurate and his range of passing makes him a constant danger,” one report said.
In many competitions, the 28-year-old caused constant problems for the opposition defence with his quick recycling of the ball and launching it into the danger area whenever possible, and producing fantastic strikes from outside the penalty box with his lethal left foot.
Goal.com described Lương as a reliable and consistent performer who always gave his all. He dared to risk everything for his nation’s victory, it said.
A player who won the trust of his coaches, Lương evolved and learnt to rely more on positioning and precision, rather than pace, and his passing accuracy has always stayed above the 80 per cent mark in every game.
Lương, however, said goodbye to the national team last month after the team failed to win the AFF Cup four times in a row.
“Actually, I could have played (for the national team) for a couple of years more, but I think it is time to stop, let the youth do the job,” Lương said.
“I am not old, but am one of two players on the team that won the AFF Cup trophy eight years ago. I have tasted every level of feeling under the national jersey. I, myself, also want something new,” he said.
The ‘Little Squirrel’, who truly lived up to his nickname with his rodent-like dribbling ability and bags of tricks, causing many problems for his opponents, played 78 matches and scored seven goals for the national team. — VNS