|Illustration by Trịnh Lập
There was no trophy for South Korean coach Park Hang-seo but his five years in Việt Nam came to a sweet ending. Although he left behind great achievements and big regrets, he has definitely been the nation's best foreign coach, who not only pushed Vietnamese football to a new level but also won the hearts of the people.
Việt Nam lost to Thailand in the recent AFF Cup final, but the team and the coach were both praised for their silver medal.
It was the last game that Park had working with the squad. Even though there was much expectation from the Vietnamese fans who crossed the border to encourage their team in Bangkok, they could not hide tears in their eyes when the South Korean came near to the stand to give tribute and say one final 'goodbye'.
Earlier, in the first leg, which was his last game in Việt Nam, many drawings and photos of the coach were raised and banners reading "Thank you, Park Hang-seo!" in Vietnamese and English fluttered in the stands.
None before him has received such huge love from Vietnamese players and supporters.
Under his reign, the U23s secured silver from the Asian Championship in 2018 before winning the SEA Games trophy twice in 2019 and 2021.
Việt Nam won the AFF Cup in 2018 after 10 years of waiting and advanced to the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup in 2019. His greatest achievement was leading the team to the final round of Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever, putting them among the continent's 12 best teams and at the same level with powerhouses Japan, South Korea and Iran.
This was a huge success that no coach could make until Park, who showed kindness by giving foot massages and his business-class seat to injured players, wrote handwritten letters to birthday players, and hugged and kissed them countlessly.
However, his greatest achievement was sharpening the potential of talented players like Nguyễn Quang Hải, Nguyễn Công Phượng, Nguyễn Tuấn Anh and Nguyễn Tiến Linh among others. The players were united as one under Park's passionate leadership. He got them playing as a well-organised team, who achieved their best success ever.
Park in the last days of the lunar year said goodbye to his players and supporters, but was committed to helping the national football team with all of his capacity.
"Parting is heartbreaking. But if there is a meeting, there will always be a breakup. When I first came to Việt Nam, I set a goal to enter the top 100 in the FIFA rankings, and now that I have achieved this, my mission is complete," said Park who has considered working as a youth football trainer in Việt Nam
"I have had five years full of joy, happiness and hardship alongside teams and fans. These memories will forever be cherished. Now that I’m no longer the head coach, I will still remain a supporter of Vietnamese football. You will be in my heart for eternity."
Park himself humbly said he still had many shortcomings, but his contribution had been also acknowledged by many countries in the region, China and his home nation.
"Although he failed to lift the championship cup on the final stage, coach Park Hang-seo is evaluated as having completely changed the level of Southeast Asian football as well as the soil of Vietnamese football," Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's oldest daily newspaper, wrote.
ESPN Singapore wrote it was "hard to argue with his achievements" and Park made an "undoubtedly glorious era" for Việt Nam. Park departs as the most successful coach in Vietnamese football history.
"During his five years as coach of the Vietnamese national team, he left the War Elephants exhausted almost every time. Especially winning the ASEAN Cup 2018, which strongly humiliated Thailand," wrote Siam Sport of Thailand.
"Although his rage did not please anyone and many people. Even if his words were sarcastic and arrogant at times. Even though his manner made the other party irritated from time to time. Park did all of this to make the best of his responsibilities.
"He is a real manly head coach. He dared to take responsibility when he knew things were wrong. He is the head coach that Thai fans loved and hated at the same time."
Nuanphan Ramsam, manager of Thailand men's football team, praised him: "Coach Park Hang-seo has left Việt Nam and left a great achievement enough to change the entire game of Southeast Asian football."
Many players shared their thoughts and emotions of their dedicated coach.
"It is my honour to be your player in the last five years. The coaching board and you believed in me and gave me chances to compete and show my abilities," goalkeeper Đặng Văn Lâm said in an online Facebook post.
"Just a 'thank' is never enough for what coach Park has done for Việt Nam football, with your huge love for players, including me. It is not an end, but a beginning for new successes. I wish you good health and that you keep your passion with football, and be successful. Thank you for your wonderful contribution and the achievements that you have brought to Việt Nam."
Midfielder Phan Văn Đức said: "Can't express my gratitude to you by words. Hope the best will come to you in your new routine."
Defender Bùi Tiến Dũng wrote he was proud to be coached by Park. It was his emotional time with both happiness and regrets. He wished him all the best and make up more miracles in the future.
Meanwhile, defender Quế Ngọc Hải enjoyed every moment with Park and said hoped to see him soon in a new position.
"He came when our football was rock bottom and full of disappointment, and lifted it up. He helped us to have the best results in our history. The loss in his last match cannot sweep away his contribution," said Đặng Thanh Phong, a Hà Nội supporter.
"He is a good coach, and none can deny that. It is a pity that he will not stay longer with Việt Nam, but I will love him forever. Be healthy and happy, and receive more success in the future. Thank you so much!"
Though he was pipped at the post in his last match, it matters not. Park is now a true legend of Vietnamese football, and will live long in people's hearts. Goodbye Park, and thanks for all the memories. VNS