SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Korea Bizwire) — “Through youthful, strong, winning soccer, I will make Vietnam’s national team one of Asia’s best.”
When South Korean soccer lifer and Vietnamese national team coach Park Hang-seo boldly pronounced his ambitions at a press conference in Hanoi on October 11, few could have predicted how prophetic his words would seem only a few months later.
On January 27 at Changzhou Olympic Sports Centre in China, the Vietnamese men’s team walked off the pitch, disappointed but not defeated after coming up short in a closely contested 2-1 overtime loss to the 2018 AFC U-23 Champions Uzbekistan.
Despite the second place finish, the Vietnamese stalwarts bid farewell to the tournament knowing that they had rewritten history; no Vietnamese soccer team, senior or otherwise, had ever gotten as close to hoisting a major soccer tournament trophy. Furthermore, no Southeast Asian nation had ever placed second in any such competition.
Though their magical run as underdogs fell just short, a hero’s welcome awaited the team back home. The player and coaching staff got a first taste of their public recognition via a “marketing campaign” by flight provider Vietjet, which constituted of lingerie-clad models serving as flight attendants on the soccer team’s private jet.
A far less risqué welcome greeted the group when the soccer squad landed at Nội Bài International Airport. Swept up onto a double-decker open roof bus like English Premier League champions, they waved to the crowds that had come to greet them as they headed towards the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
Vietnamese media reported that that the 30km road from the airport to Hanoi was congested with thousands of cheering fans who had come out to shower the returning athletes with adulation.
About 3,000km away in Seoul, no car parades and streets milling with jubilant supporters were reported, but admiration for the historic achievement of the Vietnamese young men and national pride for Park Hang-seo were keenly felt nonetheless.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in offered his heartfelt congratulations in a Facebook post that partially read, “I am very pleased as I feel as though South Korea and Vietnam have become closer. I would like to applaud both Coach Park’s work and the Vietnamese national team’s hard-fought result.”
Vietnam’s outstanding performances did not go unnoticed by the South Korean public, so much so that the tournament final against Uzbekistan overshadowed the semi-finals matchup between the South Korean national team and Qatar. While Vietnam’s game was broadcast live on television, South Korea’s game was put on the back burner as it coincided with another history-making sports event, the semi-final tennis match between sensation Chung Hyeon and the legendary Roger Federer at the Australian Open. That the South Korean soccer match was not broadcast for a full hour after the tennis match abruptly ended early betrays the general malaise locals had for the team’s performance.
Online, comments left by social media users prior to and after the finals displayed unabashed support for the Vietnamese. “Although I think Uzbekistan will most likely win, I hope Vietnam wins,” wrote one user, while another said, “Please win Vietnam. The so-called ‘Tiger of Asia’ that is our national team lost to Qatar but Vietnam beat them” (South Korea also lost to Uzbekistan, but by a wider margin of 4-1 in the earlier rounds).
Others took their praise further, such as one post that said, “South Korean soccer must learn from Vietnam’s example”, a statement that would have been considered preposterous not too long ago.
In a tournament of many firsts, some users admitted to some of their own history-making behavior. “In all my time watching soccer, this is the first time I’ve ever rooted for Vietnam,” said one such individual.
The already strong affinity for Vietnam among South Koreans should only deepen with coach Park Hang-seo’s role and the Vietnamese people’s acceptance of him. The nation is already a major tourist draw for South Koreans; 1.54 million South Koreans visited Vietnam in 2016, more than any other Southeast Asian country, and 1.71 million did likewise from January through November last year.
Vietnam is also emerging as an important trade partner for South Korea. Since the signing of a free trade agreement in December, 2015, bilateral trade last year surged by at least 43 percent compared to 2014.
As part of a “post-China” economic blueprint, the current government is taking pains to look southwards to ASEAN nations to build up trade relationships. President Moon during his Southeast Asian tour undertaken late last year spoke of a “New Southern Policy” and his desire to “grow the relationship between ASEAN and South Korea to a similar level as with the four major countries surrounding the Korean peninsula”.
Though they may have, to use Park’s words, come short by “one minute”, if his words are anything to go by, both coach and soccer team may have attained something greater than an Asia-specific soccer triumph.
“My hope is that my commitment to Vietnamese soccer will help deepen the friendship between South Korea and Vietnam, and I hope that the Vietnamese soccer team can earn the love of the Vietnamese people,” Park said on October 11.
Lina Jang (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*Editor’s Note: This article previously stated Vietnam was the most visited country by South Koreans