While South Korea is busy preparing for a vital 2022 World Cup qualifier against Lebanon in Beirut on Thursday, one of the country’s most recognizable figures in football will be in action in Southeast Asia.
Park Hang-seo is famous in South Korea but the coach is on a whole different level in Vietnam. Last week he signed a new three-year contract that will see him stay on as the national team coach. It is the most lucrative deal ever handed out by Vietnamese football and while details have not been released, his salary is going to be considerably higher than the $20,000 a month he previously received.
It is easy to see why both parties wanted to continue the relationship as it has taken them to new levels.
For Vietnam, under Park, it has become the leading nation in Southeast Asia, overtaking Thailand as No. 1 in the region of over 600 million people. Vietnam already had talent but Park has introduced new levels of discipline, fitness and organization.
The first signs of “Park Syndrome” were seen in January 2018 as he led the U-23 team to the final of the Asian Championships, losing to Uzbekistan in the snows of China.
As the young “Golden Stars” progressed further and further in the competition, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of fans took to the streets and bars of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It was reminiscent of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea when Park was on the coaching staff of Guus Hiddink as the Taegeuk Warriors stormed to the semifinal.
Later in 2018, the scenes were replicated as Vietnam won the AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s premier tournament that takes place every two years.
In January 2019, he then took Vietnam to the quarterfinal of the Asian Cup, the continent’s flagship event, for the first time on foreign soil. Now, there is a reasonable chance that the Reds can get to the last stage of 2022 World Cup qualification. It really would be a fine achievement.
It is not just a one-way deal. Park may be well known at home but until then had, in truth, a middling coaching career. Going to Vietnam in late 2017 has lifted his reputation so that he is now considered one of the best in Asia. He is a hero in Vietnam and is the face of all kinds of products. His exploits are now followed closely back in Korea too.
“As we’ve made progress over the past two years, a strong system is taking root, and I felt there was more work left for me to do,” Park said after signing the contract. “I’ve had such tremendous support from fans in Vietnam, and I decided the best way to return that love is to build an even stronger team.”
Park has done more for Korea-Vietnam relations than anyone and with ties between the two countries growing by the day, the 62-year-old still has a major part to play.
“I am happy that I’ve been able to contribute to that end over the last two years,” Park said. “I’ll keep trying to serve as a bridge between the two countries.”
The real bridge is the one that connects the second round of qualification in Asia, which contains 40 teams, to the 12-team third-round stage. If Vietnam can get there, then the team’s status as an Asian power will be hard to deny.
Finishing top of the group guarantees that, and if Vietnam can defeat top seeded United Arab Emirates on Thursday, then it will go clear at the top of the five-team Group G. There will still be much to do but already so much has been done.
By John Duerden @ Korea Times