As we gear up for the upcoming 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup tie between Malaysia and Vietnam happening this Sunday, Jay Lê argues that Vietnamese football is actually far more superior than their Malaysian counterpart at this moment in time...
1. Excellent national stadium
During the Vietnam leg of Arsenal's Asia Tour 2013, the pitch at My Dinh National Stadium was highly praised by Arsene Wenger to the extent of likening it to the Emirates Stadium's state-of-the-art pitch. Meanwhile, the Bukit Jalil National Stadium’s pitch did not exactly get the same level of assessment – even after it was upgraded at a cost of RM1.5 million.
2. Well-planned youth football development
Almost eight years ago, Doan Nguyen Duc, one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the country and also the president of Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC, shocked the nation when he announced a strategic parternership agreement with Arsenal (yes, THAT Arsenal) and built a professional football academy called HAGL-Arsenal JMG.
Since then, the academy has recruited Under-12 players from around the country and train them to be future stars. Fast forward to today, the first batch of HAGL-Arsenal JMG graduates are slowly gaining prominence.
In the last two years, the Vietnam Under-19 team has been featuring 12 players from the academy, forming the backbone of the national team that finished runners-up at the 2014 SEA U-19 Championship. This team also participated in the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship, where they finished bottom of the group but were described as “surprisingly good” by the head coaches of their group rivals.
Fun fact: In 2012, four of the 12 HAGL-Arsenal JMG graduates were invited by Arsene Wenger himself to train with Arsenal Under-21s in England. One of them, Nguyen Tuan Anh, was even praised by the Professor as “a true Asian gem”.
3. Investment from big European clubs
Following the success of HAGL-Arsenal JMG, there are some big names from Europe that have begun looking to do the same. In April 2014, the Real Madrid Foundation hosted two football clinics in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to examine the talent pool in Vietnam.
While Los Blancos are still far from building an academy in the country, two European teams have already sent representatives to Vietnam and presented their plans to do so. Italy’s Inter Milan are currently working with 2014 V-League champions Becamex Binh Duong, while Germany’s Borussia Dortmund have contacted the Viettel Football Academy in Hanoi.
4. Continental performances
Last season, Hanoi T&T and Vissai Ninh Binh represented Vietnam in the AFC Cup group stages and they faced Selangor and Kelantan respectively. The results, if you have already forgotten, did not make Malaysia proud.
Vissai Ninh Binh, fresh from being badly hit by match-fixing scandals, had suspended most of their best players and essentially fielded a ‘B’ team at the AFC Cup. Despite that, they still managed to beat Kelantan twice and finished as the Group G winners. Selangor fared better by recording a win and a loss against Hanoi T&T.
In the end, Hanoi T&T and Vissai Ninh Binh managed to go all the way to the quarter-finals. Kelantan and Selangor? They did not even make it out of the group stages. Mind you, despite the achievement, both Vietnamese clubs considered it to be a bad season.
5. The next Le Cong Vinhs are already in the making
Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh is arguably one of the most famous strikers in Southeast Asia football, but the 28-year-old did not even start the first group match against Indonesia. Instead, starting in his place was 27-year-old Nguyen Hai Anh, who was considered the best Vietnamese striker in the 2014 V-League season.
Also at head coach Toshiya Miura’s disposal at the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup are 23-year-old Nguyen Van Quyet, who has been nominated for the 2014 Vietnamese Golden Ball award, and 22-year-old Mac Hong Quan, who has scored one goal in six appearances for his country so far. Plus, although he did not get called up, 19-year-old Nguyen Cong Phuong, who was previously linked with Arsenal, is always ready to lead the line in the near future.
In comparison, Malaysia are lacking of good names for the next generation of forwards as evident from their current 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup squad.
Safee Sali and Amri Yahyah are aging, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha is misfiring and 27-year-old Abdul Manaf Mamat has hardly played for the Harimau Malaya, let alone scoring for them. So it begs the question: where are the next Safee Salis or Amri Yahyahs?
(Photos: asiana.my, Getty Images)