Mind Myanmar: Nguyen wary of underdogs as he eyes AFF Suzuki Cup mark

Vietnam starlet Nguyen Tuan Anh has declared Myanmar are the team to beat if his nation wants to progress from Group B at the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup.

Speaking exclusively with FourFourTwo, the 21-year-old touched on his footballing heroes, his lifelong dream to be a professional player and what he’s learned from his time in Japan’s J.League but also downplayed the challenge presented by the nation that most regard as the team to beat in the section, Malaysia.

Malaysia have had some troubles recently so for me Myanmar is the most dangerous opponent in our group,” the midfielder told FourFourTwo.

“They’ve had an excellent preparation and their youth system is very good as shown by the fact that they reached the Under-20 World Cup last year.

“More than that though they have many young players with very good technique and then they also have home advantage so they are the side that we are most worried about."

I have always admired the likes of Zidane and now Mesut Ozil and it was my dream to try and emulate those kinds of players.

Regarded as one of his nation’s most technically gifted players, Tuan Anh’s participation in the tournament is still up in the air after he picked up a leg injury training for his club side, Yokohama FC.

As one of just three players based abroad it would certainly be a blow for Vietnam’s hopes if he was unable to recover in time.

On loan from V.League outfit Hoang Anh Gia Lai, the midfielder has struggled for playing time in the competitive world of Japanese football but did impress in the Emperor’s Cup, scoring in a win over Nagano in late September but as he tells he feels he’s grown immensely as a player during his time in Japan.

“The attention to detail in Japan is very good in all aspects, even little things like the way you warm up and various exercises that the club has and Japanese players are very well conditioned physically.

“You see lots of players in Vietnam with good technique, like the players in Japan, but the real difference is with the physical and conditioning aspects where Japan is more advanced – and without that it’s difficult to play at a high level.

“The facilities too are at a higher level regarding the playing surface, the stadium and recovery facilities and when I first came to Japan I felt that I was still young but I’ve really grown in my time there and football there is very professional, more than Vietnam,” he says.

Growing up in a small town in northern Vietnam, all Tuan Anh wanted to do was play but with a father who was a medical professional there was pressure to follow in his footsteps.

“My father is a doctor and he wanted me to become a doctor too but it was my dream to become a football player.

“I have always admired the likes of Zidane and now Mesut Ozil and it was my dream to try and emulate those kinds of players.

“Ever since I was a child, maybe four or five years old I had this dream but I remember playing with the ball even earlier than that – maybe when I was just two or three and now my father has come around and supported me as a player so I suppose it was all worthwhile!”

With those skills honed from his earliest years at the age of 11 Tuan Anh moved to the prestigious Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal academy where he would spend up five or six hours a day, six days a week training and refining those skills.

“In the morning we would start school at seven o’clock then at 10.30 we would come back to the academy and train,” he recalls.

“Then at 12 we’d finish training, be back at school till three and then more football until sundown.

“I was there from 11 to 19 years of age and would only visit my hometown once or twice a year so it was difficult but it definitely helped my development as a player.”

You see lots of players in Vietnam with good technique, like the players in Japan, but the real difference is with the physical and conditioning aspects.

Upon graduation he moved virtually straight into the first team at the storied HAGL club before the switch to Japan this year and while he would love to return next year to continue his footballing ‘education’ in the country that decision is up to his ‘parent’ club.

For now, the race is on to prove his fitness for the region’s preeminent tournament and one which, despite the presence of Thailand, he feels Vietnam has a chance to do very well in.

“I think Thailand has a higher level than other countries in the region and in Thailand they love football and they have a good league and many academies to continually create good young players so they are definitely a strong nation.

“Now, we still have some issues with our defence and we have many young players and we need some time, maybe two or three years until we get more experience to really hit our peak.

“However, Vietnam is historically a big team in the Suzuki Cup so we have a good chance to reach the semifinals and we hope we can go further.”

Vietnamese supporters too hope that their exceptionally gifted young midfield talent will be fit enough to be part of that pursuit, nine years after he sat as a fresh academy recruit watching his nation host – and reach the knockout stage – of the Asian Cup.