Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
A Vietnamese flag tied to a pole and thrust into a mound of freshly fallen snow by midfielder Duy Mạnh set the tone for the celebrations that followed Việt Nam’s defeat by Uzbekistan in the final of the Asian Football Confederation’s Under 23 Championship.
The game was played in heavy, almost blinding snow at the football stadium in Changshu, China, in the Yangtse River delta last Saturday. Most of the Vietnamese players had never seen anything like it, let alone compete in it.
A total of 16 countries took part in the contest, ranging from Iraq in the West to Uzbekistan in the centre; Thailand, Việt Nam and China in the East; and Australia way down South.
Việt Nam made the final round for the first time in history. Before this year, they had never even won a championship at the smaller Southeast Asian Games run for the 11 ASEAN nations.
Vietnamese at home and abroad, but particularly in Hà Nội, went overboard three times this month to celebrate the young team’s achievements. The nation’s 90 million men, women, children — and babies in arms — soaked up the courage of their young football team.
Endless conga lines of cheering, flag-waving, horn-blowing motor cyclists swallowed the home-coming motorcade that brought the team home from the airport after their incredible run. Of the six matches they competed in, Việt Nam drew one and won three: beating Australia in the qualifying round and Iraq in the quarter-finals, and then Qatar in the semi-final.
But it was the final that won everyone’s hearts. The ride into central Hà Nội was planned to last for an hour, but actually took five because of the huge crowds. It was a traffic jam with a carnival mood. Most people stuck in it wanted it to last longer!
The Under 23 team may have lost the final, but they became champions in the hearts of Vietnamese throughout the world.
To some outsiders, especially from countries with strong football traditions, the celebrations were a bit over the top. One foreigner remarked that in Europe, people would rarely attend an Under 23 game, let alone celebrate a loss.
But Vietnamese saw it as a credible performance in absurd conditions. It was the determination and hope that the youngsters gave to their people that was being celebrated — the sort of hope inspired by Vietnamese soldiers throughout the revolution. It’s one in, all in — no room for pondering.
When the young team passed the qualifying round to reach the final, the public started to follow every match closely.
“I felt proud of our young men. They come home with their heads held high because they fought until the last minute,” said an elderly man who stood on top of the Nguyễn Chí Thanh crossover in cold rain to wait for the bus to pass.
Millions of people in cities throughout the country — Hà Nội, Huế, Đà Nẵng and Hồ Chí Minh City — took to the streets dressed in red T-shirts. They embraced everyone wearing the Golden Star. The scene was unprecedented and heartwarming.
Starting out as the underdogs, the U23 team steadily fought its way to the final, leaving behind other football giants like China, South Korea and Japan. Then they left Australia, Iraq and Qatar behind to get to the final against Uzbekistan.
Never having seen snow in their lives, the final game in China was a real duel for the team. It was brutal for both teams, but Vietnamese played splendidly in front of a disappointing number of spectators. In freezing weather, it took 50 minutes to clear the still falling snow during the mid-game break. Việt Nam lost the game 2-1 a minute before the end of the match after extra time.
Some viewers were moved to tears to see Văn Thanh and captain Xuân Trường clear snow for Quang Hải to place his ball before a free kick near the end of the first half.
In a report on the championship, Scott McIntyre from Fox Sport, who has been covering youth football for more than 15 years, picked his list of best players for the tournament — striker Nguyễn Quang Hải and goal keeper Bùi Tiến Dũng were on the list.
McIntyre wrote that he did not take into account how far the team went into the tournament, but judged how important each player was to his team, his individual performance and technical proficiency as these factors would be decisive in the future.
“I’m fairly confident that, when we look back in half a decade or so, the majority of these players will likely be established senior stars and key contributors for their clubs wherever that may be,” he said. — VNS