The Local Game: For role models, look no further than Vietnamese women

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Nguyễn Thị Bích Thùy (middle) celebrates her goal with her teammates in the match between Việt Nam and Chinese Taipei on Sunday. AFP/VNA Photo

Peter Cowan

I’ve never really been one for role models or idols.

Call me a cynic, but I’ve always found it hard to suspend disbelief when it comes to my favourite athletes; even Thierry Henry has flaws.

However if the Việt Nam men’s national team are seeking some mentors to guide them on their quest for eventual World Cup qualification, they should look no further than their female counterparts.

On Sunday in India, Việt Nam qualified for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand thanks to a 2-1 win over Chinese Taipei.

It was a match high on drama, as Việt Nam took an early lead before being pegged back to 1-1 just five minutes into the second half.

At this point it would have been easy for coach Mai Đức Chung’s side to throw in the towel. After all, it was their fifth match of the tournament in the stifling heat, several players had contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks and they had all been away from their homes and families over the Tết holiday.

However these players are made of stern stuff and just six minutes after conceding, Nguyễn Thị Bích Thùy fired them back into the lead.

While there were a few hairy moments in the rest of the game, the women in red were able to see out the match professionally and book their place at the world’s premier football tournament for the first time in history.

A direct comparison to the male team is probably unfair in numerous ways, but there are still lessons to be learned for those in the men’s game.

For a start, it’s clear that competing at a high level for years has paid dividends for the women’s team.

They have competed at every AFC Women’s Asian Cup (the premier continental competition) since 1999, giving them the chance to test themselves against Asia’s best.

In contrast, the men have only been to two AFC Asian Cups in that time period.

While qualifying for the men’s edition is a tougher task, it’s clear that the focus for the men should be qualifying for this tournament and winning the chance to play the likes of South Korea and Iran, rather than building a team around winning the SEA Games.

The other thing the women did that the men should emulate is take advantage of the opportunity brought by tournament expansion.

The 2023 Women’s World Cup will include 32 teams instead of the 24 in previous years, while the men’s edition in 2026 will see 48 teams compete instead of the previous 32.

There’s no denying this made qualifying for the showpiece event slightly easier for the women’s team, but they still had to grab their opportunity.

When the men have a similar opportunity in the next World Cup qualifying cycle, they should be given every possible advantage to make it count. For example, the women had a training camp in Spain ahead of the Indian tournament, an expense the VFF may have wanted to save in previous years.

The Vietnamese women’s team have shown it can be done and how it can be done, now it’s time for the men to follow their example. VNS

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