There is no doubt that Vietnamese football is on the rise. The national team, nicknamed the Golden Star Warriors, reached unchartered waters after qualifying from their FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying group where they brushed aside rival Southeast nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to finish second behind the United Arab Emirates.
In the AFC Third Round Qualifying round for the first time in their history, Vietnam were drawn alongside Asian powerhouses like Saudi Arabia, Australia, Japan and China as well as Oman and this was to prove to be a completely different level. Beating the Chinese in Hanoi back in February will go down as one of the most memorable nights in the history of the national team, and the South China Post described the result as humiliating for China, Still, that single win and eight losses only highlight the gulf that exists between Southeast Asia’s finest and the rest of the continent.
And when you consider Australia have been drawn with the likes of France, Tunisia and Denmark in Qatar you can’t help but wonder how the Golden Star Warriors would have fared had they reached the World Cup proper. Saudi Arabia, one of the teams that comfortably beat Vietnam in qualifying, are ranked as outsiders in the latest World Cup betting odds on Ladbrokes. In fact, none of the five AFC teams are rated as likely to emerge from the group stages, which underlines how far adrift Vietnam are in world football.
Can Vietnam ever qualify for the World Cup? Certainly, when it comes to Southeast Asia they are the best equipped. They won the regional Suzuki ASEAN Football Championship in 2018 while the Under 22s lifted the Southeast Asian Games in 2019 and 2021. But beyond that bubble both national and club sides continue to struggle. The ambition is there. Even in 2019, Vietnam Football Federation officials were looking to 2026 although plans to enter the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France were thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, what can be done to turn this dream into a reality? English coach Steve Darby has worked across Southeast Asia including Vietnam and he is full of praise for the Vietnamese players and their technical ability. However, he believes playing surfaces, which often get flooded due to the annual monsoon season, need to be improved as well as better foreign players introduced to the V.League.
Darby also says it is important that the best Vietnamese players get the opportunity to play overseas and one player who has taken that advice on is the midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai. The 25-year-old midfielder has signed for French Ligue 2 side Pau, scoring on his debut in a friendly recently and his experiences of living, training and playing in such a professional environment could hopefully inspire other talented young players to try their luck abroad.
Perhaps the Vietnamese men’s team could take a leaf from women’s football. In 2001 the Vietnam women’s team, coached by the aforementioned Darby, won the SEA Games in Malaysia, becoming the first team to win an international tournament. And 2023 will see the Vietnam women’s team competing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia.
Vietnam may have failed to book a ticket to Qatar but reaching the Third Round was an achievement in itself not to be underestimated. With Nguyen Quang Hai as a role model and the SEA Games winners of 2019 and 2021 forming a youthful core, hopefully, for the passionate Vietnamese football fans, it is just one more step on the journey to seeing Vietnam take their place at the FIFA World Cup in 2026!