Vietnam vs Chinese Taipei
Mỹ Đình National Stadium, 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia / AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2, March 24th 2016
Sam Allardyce was probably not lacking in sympathisers when he recently bemoaned the ‘goddam two week gap’ in domestic football. Some of his sympathisers are at the top of the European club game, such as those present at the not-so secret meetings that would undoubtedly drive a further wedge between the continent’s elite clubs and international sides. Others still will, less unfairly, have used the FIFA-stick to beat the international game down.
But the current pause is not just an excuse for ‘football associations to make money with stupid bloody friendlies.’ The South American, North American and Asian confederations are all currently involved in 2018 World Cup qualifying. African nations are also playing competitive football, with qualification for the Nations Cup underway. And even for some of those playing friendlies, like Albania, Iceland or, of course, Wales there would have been very little that was ‘stupid’ about continuing their preparations for this summer’s European Championships. International football may be an oddity, but it certainly still matters.
And I’ve seen that in my own attempts to spread the gospel of the Beautiful Game. Friends and colleagues display reactions from surprised looks to outright comments along the lines of ‘Why do you bother?’ when they learn about my evenings spent V.League matches. However, just as used to happen on the pub league sidelines or in the office in Seoul, interest levels always rise when international fixtures come around. From the hardened football fan to the curious first-timer, Taiwan’s visit to the Vietnamese capital was to prove no different. In the run-up to the game, a dozen or more people in the office declared an interest in attending. For reasons as varied as a fledging TV career, shopping for a new laptop, and dog-sitting, we were eventually a group of just five by the time we set off for My Dinh National Stadium.
As you might have gathered from my previous post, Hanoi is never the most convenient city to navigate. However, even in rush hour, having been aided by some quite aggressive taxi-driving, our journey took only slightly longer than the 27mins predicted by Google Maps.
Part of the attraction of moving to Hanoi was the growth and development the city is currently undergoing and this is very evident in the city’s Tu Liem District, an almost entirely different city to the older part where I live and work. The roads are bigger and wider and there’s an impressive and expanding skyline, including Landmark 72, Vietnam’s tallest building. My Dinh National Stadium does not look out of place here, either. Just over a decade old, the stadium is the regular home of the Vietnamese national team and hosted a quarter- and semi-final at the 2007 Asian Cup that Vietnam co-hosted.
Our taxi-driver dropped us off on what was a very wide part-car park, part-road, part-plaza situated in front of the stadium. The ticket booths were easily located and, it having been a wet few days, we opted for the comfort of one of the two covered stands. Tickets bought (at a cost of just 120,000VND – or less than £4) and with an hour to kick-off, we headed to the bia hoi near to the booths.
Bia hoi is, to the best of my knowledge, a uniquely Vietnamese experience. It is a light- 3 to 4%- lager brewed, batched and drunk all on the same day. It’s not the best beer you’ll ever drink, but it’s cheap, cold, and generally refreshing. With the beer came some tasty chips and a salad of indeterminate content, and then it was time to head in.
The concourse inside the stadium was very spacious; spacious enough, in fact, for a tennis court. Happily, there were also several vendors selling cans of Ha Noi beer. Alas, security was considerably stricter at the National Stadium than Hang Day and the cans weren’t allowed to be taken in. This was not some ‘not within view of the playing surface’ rule, though, and once our beers had been transferred to plastics bags with straws, we were free to enjoy them at our seats.
This was the fifth of six second qualification matches for Vietnam, but the first for new manager Nguyen Huu Thang. Nguyen replaced Toshiya Miura earlier in March and has already endeared himself to fans by picking a young squad featuring several young players who have come through the Arsenal-affiliated Hoang Anh Gia Lai Academy. Two of those, Vu Van Thanh and Nguyen Van Toan, had played starring roles in the V.League opening day 5-0 demolition of my former team Ha Noi FC. The previous season’s form of two further graduates, Nguyen Tuan Anh and Luong Xuan Truong, had earned them moves to Japan and South Korea respectively. All four were to make they debuts in the starting XI and I was particularly keen to see Xuan Truong, who will be playing for Incheon United this season.
The game started at a good pace, but the young side were to get off to a terrible start. A careless pass from Thanh Luong, one of the more experienced players, and poor defending by Ngo Hoang Thinh allowed Taiwan to open the scoring, but the lead was to last little more a minute. Thanh Luong was himself the recipient of a stray pass and, after great work down the left, he crossed for captain Le Cong Vinh to volley in an equalizer.
On half an hour, a wonderful left-to-right raking pass from Que Ngoc Hai found full-back Tran Dinh Hoang in a very advanced position. He cut back and youngster Van Toan was on-hand to mark his debut with a goal. He then got a second before half-time, when Xuan Truong expertly chipped the ball over the Taiwanese defence and Van Toan lifted the ball over the keeper. In-between, Le Cong Vinh crashed the crossbar from ten yards out, as Vietnam went into the break having completely dominated since falling behind.
We were joined by my podcasting friend Bill at half-time. He’d been in the lower tier for the first where a young couple were having the wedding photos taken among the flares and drummers. We later spotted them in the fan area to our left with Vietnam shirts over their wedding outfits and they even appeared in the national media the following day.
The second half was played at a much less frenetic pace, and what chances there were fell to Cong Vinh. In added time, he did eventually net his 42nd international goal, firing in off the crossbar having been cleverly played in by Xuan Truong. This was the third time I’ve seen the National Team captain play and he hadn’t stood out until now. For his club side Becamex Binh Duong, he’s often played as a wide attacker, but here he was very much the central focal point. He was superb and deserved his two goals.
Full Time: Vietnam 4 – 1 Chinese Taipei
The new manager was perhaps more impressive still. From the way players ran to him after each goal, he has clearly built a strong spirit among the squad. After paying their respects to the visitors, Nguyen led the charge on a celebratory lap of the stadium to presumably further that bond to include the fans. He had been brave in picking an inexperienced side (by my count 174 caps in the starting XI, three quarters of which belonged to just two players), but was totally vindicated by the result and performance and both players and fans will have been greatly encouraged as Vietnam move on their final game against Iraq in Tehran.
2018 FIFA World Cup Russia / AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 is as convoluted as its long name suggests. The three points gained here keep Vietnam in the hunt for Russia, needing victory in Tehran and favourable results elsewhere in order to progress. Perhaps a more realistic aim is a first Asian Cup appearance since the 2007 tournament and a strong showing against Iraq will make qualifying for the 2019 tournament in the UAE more favourable.
Over a more identifiable late dinner, it seemed everyone had been pleasantly surprised by our trip to My Dinh. Even half full, there was a good atmosphere in the ground, while down on the pitch, the young Vietnamese side had put on an entertaining show.
Whether they’ll be joining me on the terraces at Hang Day will remain to be seen, but, wherever Vietnam find themselves after this coming Tuesday’s Iraq game, hopefully they will at least be joining me on my next visit to My Dinh. If it’s anything like this one was then will be plenty to looking forward to.
Good: Vietnam’s attacking performance; Le Cong Vinh living up to his poster boy status; Van Toan’s debut goals; Xuan Truong’s two assists; a decent atmosphere despite only a half-full stadium
Bad: warm beer in a bag; unidentifiable food (although it actually tasted okay)