It was like something from Jurassic Park: a still, balmy evening, shattered by a waking giant. The balcony doors quivered, the floor vibrated underfoot. A hulking wave of a roar came from all directions and shook the glass of my 20th floor flat. Saigon had erupted; Vietnam had scored, writes Ryan Thomas.
It was an improbable goal. With an instinctive poke of his right boot, Nguyen Cong Phuong –all natural talent and no end product – had delivered when it mattered. Vietnam’s Under-23s had gone ahead in a continental quarter-final, a rarefied level not reached by any of its national teams.
No wonder this football-mad, success starved city had gone ballistic. But the lead surely couldn’t last – opponents Iraq were bigger, more experienced, and clearly had a gear or two in reserve. 17 minutes later, they equalized. “Oh well”, I thought, reflecting on the international failures Vietnam had suffered in recent years. “At least they had the Cong Phuong goal. They’ll be talking about that for years”. And the people of Vietnam may well do that.
More likely though, they’ll be talking about what happened next. The amazing comebacks. The perfect penalties. The blizzards and bad refereeing. The unbridled joy as millions poured into the streets. Vietnam, so often divided, was suddenly an ocean of red and yellow, colours made neon by a legion of headlights beneath the night sky.
But most of all, perhaps: the name of Nguyen Quang Hai.
Locals love to tell me what a tiny place this is. “Vietnam is a small country,” I hear again and again. To my Welsh eyes, this always seemed ridiculous. Looking out from my balcony high above Saigon (known interchangeably as Ho Chi Minh City), I could see more houses than Wales had in its entirety, a mere fraction of the city’s abodes that 10 million or more call home. Ten times that number live throughout Vietnam, densely packed or sparsely spaced depending on the region of this slender, fascinating land.
Culturally, North and South Vietnam can seem like different nations. Neither truly trusts the other. It’s a wariness unsurprising given the history of bloody civil war within living memory, but the discord of today is more cultural. The language is shared on paper, but it’s spoken in different tongues. Saigon is liberal and commercial, Hanoi conservative and pastoral. The south thinks the north acts like an overbearing father, the north sees the south as an insolent child.
Football is one of the few loves shared across Vietnam — that, and a hatred for China. V-League games are sparsely attended and seldom loved, but the Premier League and the big two of La Liga attract fanatical attention, packing out coffee shops (often allied to one of the big teams) and dominating the pages of daily football newspapers.
The national team is the big draw, however. Similar can be said for countries throughout the region, but the depth of support in Vietnam is something else. Age-group teams are followed as keenly as the seniors, and regardless of the win/loss ratio, home games for each team are usually played to packed-out crowds. The stands of these brutalist stadia become walls of yellow and red, and screams reminiscent of Beatlemania greet the mildest flirtation with the final third of the pitch by their team.
Interest is high. The passion is genuine. But before the AFC U-23 championships, hopes were definitely neither.
The opening group match confirmed the doubts. Vietnam lost 2-1 to regional giants South Korea, and the narrative was familiar: the Golden Dragons took the lead, battled bravely, but were ultimately lacking at this level. “Too small,” say detractors, often combining this with complaints about mental and physical strength. One man who never bought that line was the coach. Park Hang-seo had been in charge of Vietnam’s senior and U23 teams for under six months, but was ready to change the record.
“I don’t know why there is a preconception that Vietnamese players are weak and that their qualities cannot be compared with others in Asia,” said Park to VN Express, “I want to change that way of thinking.” The former Changwon boss has form in this regard — he was part of Guus Hiddink’s staff for that magical South Korea run to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, which is the high watermark of unlikely Asian sporting triumphs
The next game, against Australia, felt like a giant leap in a new direction. Teams from Vietnam always featured talented players, but rarely worked as a unit. Here, they were well organized and tactically robust. They stayed compact, broke with purpose, and they got their reward with a deflected finish from a skillful 20-year old, Nguyen Quang Hai in the 72nd minute. They closed out the game like old pros, negating their size deficiencies and doubters with comfort and ease.
People at home took note. They didn’t expect this: a win against a top-tier continental team. Progression into the knockout stages, secured with another disciplined showing against Syria, was already a blessing — proof that success for Vietnam could be more than not getting beaten too badly. It was to be a fantastic milestone, regardless of the inevitable defeat against Iraq. But defeat didn’t come.
I was packing up my possessions at the time of the quarter-final. The next day, I was to move house, and the TV, set to the right channel hours before, had been muted and walled in behind boxes. It was that epic roar which told me I’d forgotten the game. I looked at my watch. It was early. I scaled the ramparts that hid the flatscreen, and – wow – Vietnam were in the lead. More than that, they were holding their own — again, keeping shape and staying sharp against highly-rated opposition.
Iraq were good. While they moved the ball fluently and looked well on top, they didn’t trouble the keeper. But the soft penalty they won and converted on 30 minutes would surely, my watching companions agreed, be the end of that. Not so. In the next 60 minutes, Iraq jabbed and jibed at their opponents, and with no little grace. But Vietnam counter-punched beautifully, showing a patience that is too-little associated with this stepover-loving generation of callow technicians.
In extra-time, people started believing. But then — a soft goal from a corner! No!
Vietnamese heads were down. Iraq started having it their way – their physicality was making the difference, just as people predicted. No way back now, surely?
But then! An equalizer! Tsunami roar hits again! Unbelievable! Bad keeping, but whip-smart reactions and…wait…Vietnam were leading!
The noise stayed at fever pitch for what felt like hours. In fact, it was for 4 minutes. When Iraq equalized to confirm a shootout, the static buzz popped, and the city seemed gutted.
I went out onto the balcony. Vietnam is only my adopted home, but I was too nervous to watch the penalties. I’d listen to the city instead. It roared. And roared. And roared again. In their first quarter final, Vietnam had won the shootout… by scoring all 5 penalties.
Vietnam subdue Iraq in quarterfinal thriller to continue AFC U23 Championship fairy tale – Tuoi Tre News https://t.co/9dcmJkFcgU pic.twitter.com/rCMIDlXVKi
— Ho Chi Minh City (@HoChiMinhCityRR) January 24, 2018
In moments, the quiet Saturday night streets of Ho Chi Minh City were rammed. But the scenes down below would look like a Yoga retreat compared to what came next.
Can anything galvanise a nation’s spirit like football? A war, maybe, but Vietnam’s had enough of those.
In doing so, of course, they beat two Western forces against improbable odds. Despite humbling the great armies of France and the USA, however, Vietnamese people always seem to struggle for self-belief. Perhaps the toils of reconstruction had been too great, the years of being global outcasts and poor relations too wearying.
But this unlikely run to the semi-finals – the first not only by a Vietnamese team, but by any representative from Southeast Asia – had put tangible dents in that inferiority complex. Maybe they weren’t too small? Maybe defeat wasn’t in their DNA? Maybe Vietnam can compete on a continental level? And not just in football, either!
It was a great feeling, even if it was going to pop soon enough. Qatar were up next, and they were another level again: a skilful team from a rich country, with technical, mature players being honed for the world stage in 2022. FIFA and the AFC both had skin in the game of making Qatar credible, and their excellent performances in this tournament showed the approach was working.
2pm on a sticky, stormy Tuesday afternoon. An hour before the semi-final. A work day when nobody was working. I had just arrived at my favourite spot, and was lucky to get a seat. This coffee shop normally seats 50, but by the time kick-off approached, there were 200 crammed inside and out.
The scene was the same up and down the country. A nation of 100 million, rapt at the pictures of slight young men who looked like themselves or their neighbours, lived every moment of this Under-23 football match. They drew breath with every Qatari foray, and punched the air with every save. When Vietnam so much as glanced at the opposition half, everyone stood, racked with fervour and will.
Qatar took the lead with a soft, soft penalty. FIFA’s golden boys were ahead. With an hour left to play – the talismanic Nguyen Cong Phuong hobbling, and Qatari swagger rising – nobody around me held much hope for Vietnam. But then came Nguyen Quang Hai.
With a sudden-chance on the half-turn, Quang Hai equalised in clinical style. The room erupted. The country erupted. Vietnam were on level terms — despite losing Cong Phuong at half time, despite the questionable refereeing, despite being… no, not too small anymore. That’s in the bin. Anything is possible now.
Vietnam began to assert themselves. The belief was real, and infectious. Every time Quang Hai got the ball, people expected, like Bolt getting the baton in the final leg. Vietnam – still so disciplined – sat back, but they broke with pace and intent. They were on top, but could they make the breakthrough?
On 87 minutes, it seemed not. Qatar scored. It was a rare recent venture into Vietnamese territory, and it seemed at first a dubious goal. But it wasn’t. Qatar were ahead, and that looked to be that. But one man had other ideas.
Heads were down all around me. Nobody was leaving, but people were getting their bills. They were picking up their bike keys. On the screen, play restarted. Quickly, 60 yards out, a freekick for Vietnam. Their players flooded the Qatari box, but the delivery was wafted. Qatar failed to clear, and the ball is with Quang Hai on the edge of the D…
Time stopped. I don’t know why, but it stopped. You can’t predict moments of magic — that’s what makes them magical. But I swear, for me, for the 200 others in the coffee shop, the 100 million Vietnamese watching, time had simply stopped.
The last time it felt like this was Hal Robson Kanu against Belgium. I should have been in France, or Wales at least, but I wasn’t there. I was a Welshman in Saigon, alone at 4am, as all around in the Quan Nhau kept drinking. I wasn’t there.
I was there for this, though. I was there, surrounded by partisans, holding their breath when the clock stopped. Time stood still even when it began again.
Quang Hai had few options. The 88th minute. Down and out. Two burly Qatari men charged at him. “Too small,” they said. Quang Hai shimmied, and they were on the ground. More came towards him. “Too weak, mentally and physically,” they said. Quang Hai feinted right, and they turned their backs.
He bore left. He looked up. From 20 metres, with 5 bodies between him and the goal, he knew what he was doing. He was right, and they were wrong. They were strong, but he was stronger. Nguyen Quang Hai scored, and Vietnam would never doubt itself again.
Millions were in the streets that night. Millions and millions and millions of people, with flags and headscarves and voices hoarse from screaming. From Hanoi to Saigon, the boulevards to the Hems, the rice fields to the rooftop bars, joy rang out everywhere.
Cities turn red by delirious football fans after Vietnam advances to AFC U23 Championship final https://t.co/MgC5Qp1BqT pic.twitter.com/Jrn9JfKqwY
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 24, 2018
They stood singing on trucks and climbed on statues. They drank beer and rice wine and let loose firecrackers. They held babies aloft and ran to their ancestors at their altars. It’s no underestimation to say: that night, Vietnam was truly united, perhaps for the first time ever.
They say “the despair you can stand – it’s the hope that kills you”.
After doubting their team for the whole of the tournament, Vietnam finally fancied itself to win in the final. Uzbekistan had romped to the final in style, but that Saturday, the nation would again stop everything to watch Vietnam triumph. They gathered with their loved ones and packed out streets and bars, and this time had even more expectation than hope.
But it wasn’t to be.
The final had more than an element of farce to it. Rumours of cancellation began early that morning. Heavy snowfall overnight had turned the stadium into a winter wonderland. For the Uzbeks, maybe it wasn’t so bad. For the Vietnamese, that a question like “Have these guys even seen snow before?” could be asked meant conditions were far from favourable.
When the game got underway, 10cm or more of snow covered the pitch. The ball ran along the ground like a car on a road of pillows. What a shame that two fine, technical teams had to battle out their first major final like this. What a shame for Vietnam that the Uzbeks took to it better, taking an early lead.
There were highlights for Vietnam. That man Quang Hai again produced a moment of outrageous skill, putting a free-kick right in the top corner on the stroke of half-time.
When the whistle blew, however, any momentum would be snuffed out. Officials decided the pitch should be cleared, and it killed Vietnam. That tough first half, coupled with two 120 minute-long knock-out matches, were surely felt in the bones of this excellent Vietnamese team more than their rivals, and so it proved.
The game limped on into extra time – keeper Bùi Tien Dung with the outstanding moment with a point-blank save – and many thought recent experience would favour the Golden Warriors. Sadly, the late Uzbek sub snatched the winner in the 120th minute, just as all were gearing up for penalties, and that was that. Not even Quang Hai could fetch anything from the last, desperate seconds. Hearts broken. Game over.
But the country didn’t let that get them down. They came together, still in party mode despite the wrenching defeat. Their boys had achieved a lot for them. They, on the streets, had proved a lot to themselves.
The team’s return was almost as eventful as their stay in China. Flights were provided by a sponsor, VietJet (think EasyJet in the Benny Hill era), who brought chaos to proceedings by hosting a bikini show in the aisles midflight. It was as dignified as it was comfortable for the exhausted Under-23s.
Vietnam's U23 squad returns to fans' storming ovation #Vietnam #U23Vietnam #AFCchampionShip #return #BuiTienDung #QuangHai #football #legacy #ASEANPridehttps://t.co/4V8GWaQ8yC pic.twitter.com/zdukvSHKWT
— Hanoitimes (@Hanoitimes2) January 29, 2018
The scene at the airport was more fitting. Thousands crowded around Hanoi airport, and countless more lined the whole 30km route back into town. Every step of the way, people chanted “Việt Nam vô địch! Việt Nam vô địch!”
It was a fitting epitaph to an epic moment. Some observers had complained about Vietnam’s style, but none of them were in this country. Far from it.
No matter what this team or this country go on to achieve — and there’s every reason to believe both will succeed in anything and everything they believe they can — this was unforgettable. A nation fused as one, in joy and spontaneity. Collective, deep-seated doubts of a proud people were dispelled in real time.
Football. Bloody hell.
© Ryan Thomas 2018