When Nguyen Cong Phuong tipped the scales at 56 pounds, the leading local soccer team in north central Vietnam turned the 11-year-old away: He didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement. His playing career nearly over before it started, Cong Phuong vowed nothing else would stand in his way.
You could still call Cong Phuong, now 23, a shrimp, at 5-foot-6 and 146 pounds, but his countrymen call him “Messi Vietnam,” for a tricky playing style reminiscent of the Argentine superstar — even if his roughly $40,000 salary can’t match Messi’s $122 million. And in cities not known for being oases of calm, the cacophony reached a fever pitch as Vietnam’s under-23 soccer team, helmed by Cong Phuong, marched to the final of this year’s Asian Football Confederation Cup, held in China. Coffee shops, bars and even cinemas were packed with supporters clad in red with the national flag painted on their faces to watch the televised matches. After each successive win, thousands of Vietnamese took to the streets amid a deafening symphony of motorbike horns and kitchen utensils beating against any available surface.
Championship hopes were eventually dashed by Uzbekistan in an extra-time defeat. But team members by then had already been granted hero status — symbols of national pride in a country that takes its rare international sporting successes seriously. “It’s still hard to believe that it wasn’t a dream,” Cong Phuong says of the run. “It makes me very proud that the Vietnamese people showed so much belief in us. Because of them we were not lonely, but full of motivation to do our best in these games.”
DAILY GYM SESSIONS HAVE BUILT STRENGTH AND STAMINA, AND RELENTLESS WORK ON HIS TECHNIQUE HAS TURNED HIM INTO ONE OF VIETNAM’S FIERCEST ATTACKING WEAPONS.
Vietnam has never qualified for the World Cup, and yet fans and analysts are watching as Cong Phuong leads a dynamic new generation who could break the streak. “I believe that Vietnam has the players to be the dominant force” in Southeast Asia, says Scott McIntyre, a soccer journalist for the Asian Game and Fox Sports. “It should be a nation aiming to consistently qualify and reach the latter stages of Asian competitions and reach the World Cup.” But for a team ranked No. 113 in the world to break through, McIntyre says, Vietnam will need to free Cong Phuong and other attacking players from coach Park Hang-seo’s conservative, defense-driven “win-at-all-costs” mentality.