Vietnam missing the glory days of Park Hang-seo as Indonesia step up

<span>Jay Idzes celebrates scoring for Indonesia in a recent World Cup qualifier against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Vietnam;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Vietnam</a> in Hanoi.</span><span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>

The two biggest metropolises in Vietnam feel different. Way up in the north, Hanoi sometimes seems more similar to a Chinese city than Ho Chi Minh City over 1,000 kilometres away in the south of the long thin nation. In the formerly named Saigon with its tropical south-east Asian air, residents shake their heads at the perceived coolness of the capital’s winters and people. They do share a few things however: mental traffic, an insistence that they have the best Vietnamese food and a love for football. Anyone who has witnessed the impromptu street parties in either city that celebrated the national team’s successes on the international stage over the past few years would agree.

And they share their disappointment at the growing realisation that such parties look to be a thing of the past. The national team was, not long ago, the best in south-east Asia – a football hotbed home to 650 million people – but is highly unlikely to come even close to a first World Cup in 2026, even with Asia’s increased automatic allocation of eight. Instead, a fall at the first hurdle is imminent. It wasn’t supposed to be like this when Philippe Troussier took over in February 2023. The Frenchman was to oversee the next step in the country’s football evolution from a regional power into a consistent continental force. Instead, he received his marching orders in March after 10 defeats in the last 11 games.

Related: The 2026 World Cup final is in … New Jersey? A brief guide to the MetLife Stadium

Vietnam thrived under his predecessor, Park Hang-seo. The South Korean coach arrived in the country in 2017 amid little fanfare to take over a team that had technical talent but had underachieved. With hard work, team work, more work and then running, Park soon had the under-23s team reaching a first ever Asian tournament final. Fans were out in the streets again in December 2018 as he delivered the south-east Asian title, a fiercely fought regional championship. Weeks later came a quarter-final finish at the Asian Cup and a 1-0 loss to Japan. Then came a first ever appearance in the final round of qualification of the 2022 World Cup. “Uncle Park” became a hero in this football-mad country and the face of all manner of Korean products and companies.

The pragmatic Park stepped down in early 2023 amid a sense that he had taken the team as far as he could. The next step was to build on this foundation and add a more expansive, proactive and progressive element. Enter Troussier, cultured, urbane and worldly-wise, who had also spent years in the country working with youth academies and then Vietnam’s under-19 team. The Asian Cup in January was a disaster, however, with three defeats in three group games. That put him under serious pressure and back-to-back losses against regional rivals Indonesia in World Cup qualification means that just getting into the final 18 is now highly unlikely. Park got them into the last 12 on the road to Qatar.

Turning Vietnam from a counterattacking force into a possession-based team was never going to be easy or quick. In this transition period, there has been much more time spent with the ball but the team have been much more vulnerable while not turning possession into clear chances at the other end. Selection was also questioned with the one-time golden boy Nguyen Quang Hai left on the sidelines. Notwithstanding that expectations had been raised by Park, losing all but one of the last 11 games was always going to result in dismissal.

It has been suggested that Vietnamese players are not ready for such methods and while that is debatable, there is real frustration that the domestic V-League has not progressed in recent years. A lack of resources and competence at club and federation level has seen it fall behind those elsewhere in the region, never mind the rest of the continent. The local game is not providing the kind of preparation the national team needs to compete internationally so it is not surprising that questions are still being asked if it is better to look overseas.

Especially as that is what Indonesia, Asia’s huge underachiever and its real sleeping giant, did. For long the laughing stock of south-east Asia, they have now beaten Vietnam three times in 2024 and are on course for the final round of World Cup qualification. The country has looked to Europe for players of Indonesian heritage to naturalise and called up 10 for the recent qualifiers. The Netherlands, the former coloniser of the archipelago, has proven to be an especially rich resource. Not only are Team Garuda increasingly international but they are also the youngest national team in Asia, with an average age of 21.5 starting last month’s first qualifier. After years of negativity and scandal, it is all looking positive.

Vietnam have yet to really explore whether they can make use of their own diaspora in Europe and North America and that is a change that will have to come from the top in Hanoi. It means that, for the moment, fans will have to make do with making jibes about the makeup of Indonesia’s team on social media while trying to deal with a realisation that the regional scene is changing.

It has also not gone without notice in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that Indonesia still have their South Korean coach of their own in Shin Tae-yong and he is taking them to the next level. “Vietnam’s golden generation is coming to an end,” Shin, as forthright as Park, said after a third win over the Golden Stars in a matter of weeks. “On the other hand, Indonesia are building a golden generation and are moving forward.”