The Local Game: Looking back on the year in Vietnamese football

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Happier times earlier this year when Nguyễn Công Phượng celebrated a goal against Indonesia in the World Cup qualifiers. VNA/VNS Photo

Peter Cowan

Việt Nam couldn’t pull off a Christmas miracle on Sunday night as they crashed out of the AFF Cup, but let’s not dwell on that.

The festive season is a time to count your blessings, not complain about what you didn’t get, and with this being my last column of 2021, it’s time to reflect on the year that was.

The domestic club season was sadly curtailed in May as Việt Nam experienced its most serious COVID-19 wave yet, but before the suspension of play, there was plenty to talk (and write!) about.

Who could forget Cần Thơ Capital FC goalkeeper Phạm Trần Thanh Vũ’s knee slide in front of a referee back in March? A highlight of the year for me, as Sunday league behaviour made it onto national television.

There were National Cup shocks aplenty in the early rounds, but sadly we’ll never know if a lower league team would have gone on to lift the trophy, and Phố Hiến FC, one of the giant-killers, have even been renamed since!

We also got to enjoy Hoang Anh Gia Lai finally living up to all the hype that has long surrounded Bau Duc’s team and sprinting to the top of the table behind a high-powered attack, but again, we’ll never know if they were capable of finishing the job.

The horrific leg break Đỗ Hùng Dũng suffered also dominated the headlines for a period of time. Thankfully, Dũng seems to be close to a return to action, but my heart still also goes out to Ngô Hoàng Thịnh, who was slapped with a ridiculous punishment and faced dog’s abuse online for what was an accident.

Sadly, 2021 also featured the (hopefully temporary) demise of Quảng Ninh FC due to financial problems, which put their players in horrible positions.

The suspension and eventual cancellation of the 2021 domestic season was a blow for clubs, players and fans up and down the country, but fortunately, there was plenty of national team action to fill the football-shaped void in all of our hearts.

The undoubted highlight was advancing to the third and final round of World Cup qualification in the summer off the back of wins over Indonesia and Malaysia.

While the final match against the hosts of the fixtures the UAE ended in defeat, coach Park Hang-seo and his players achieved something no other Vietnamese team had ever done, securing their legacy no matter how the third round panned out.

As it has turned out, it seems the third round is one step too far for Việt Nam, as they have yet to pick up a point, despite several commendable performances against technically superior opponents.

Of course, the year ended on a further down note as Việt Nam relinquished their AFF Cup crown when they had come into the tournament in Singapore as heavy favourites.

Despite that disappointment, on the whole you have to look at 2021 as a year of success for the national team. If you had offered any supporter a ticket to the final round of World Cup qualifiers in return for AFF Cup defeat, I think the vast majority would have bit your hand off for a slim chance to reach Qatar 2022.

A slim chance it may have been, but we’ll always have those heady nights in Dubai when just for a moment, it was possible to dream of seeing Việt Nam play at a World Cup. VNS

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