Southeast Asian (SEA) Games fever hasn’t quite gripped Hà Nội yet, but we’ve already had a turn up for the books.
While the Games proper are about a month away, Việt Nam national team coach Park Hang-seo has already suffered an upset.
Coach Park and the Việt Nam U23 side will kick off their defence of the SEA Games men’s football title on May 6 against Indonesia, but they’ll have to do it without Nguyễn Quang Hải.
Each team at the Games can select up to three players over the age of 23 for their squads, and Park has chosen Đỗ Hùng Dũng, Nguyễn Tiến Linh and Nguyễn Hoàng Đức, three of the senior team’s top players.
However, in the days leading up to the squad selection, several publications reported that Park had his heart set on having Hải for the tournament.
Yes, you read that correctly, Park wanted to play Việt Nam’s best player and a man about to make what could be a career-defining move to a new club side abroad in a sub-regional U23 tournament.
Whether Park chose not to select him or Hải refused the call up doesn’t greatly matter at this stage, what does matter is the right decision was made.
I’m as excited for the SEA Games as anybody but to risk injury and his future at a tournament he’s already won would have been madness for Hải.
Even a relatively minor knock that would have kept him out for weeks could have derailed his chances of success overseas.
Remember though, it’s not just Hải personally set to benefit if he can make it at a higher club level but all of Vietnamese football could reap the rewards.
If he proves that this generation of Vietnamese national team stars are good enough to play in top Asian or European leagues (as many believe they are) opportunities could come thick and fast for the likes of Tiến Linh and Hoàng Đức.
If more of Park’s players are tested closer to the top of the game, a deep Asian Cup run and possibly even World Cup qualification aren’t out of reach.
Surely qualifying for the next World Cup is a higher priority than winning the SEA Games?
I understand national pride is at stake when this tournament rolls around (which it does every two years, by the way) but a little longer term thinking really wouldn’t go amiss.
Aside from all the long-term reasons not to call up Hải listed above, the three players Park has selected are good enough to lead their younger teammates to the title.
Việt Nam are rightly favourites to take the title, so let’s hope this is the only SEA Games men’s football upset we see this year. — VNS