When the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship began on the 9th January 2018 in Chuangzhou, China, the people of Vietnam were focused on something else.
The Vietnamese “trial of the century” involving 22 former oil executives had begun in Hanoi just a day before the start of the tournament. Eyes were focused on Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former manager at a subsidiary of state-owned PetroVietnam.
He had fled to Germany in 2016 to evade criminal charges, but mysteriously returned to face embezzlement charges that purportedly costed the government over $150 million. German authorities were of a different perspective, accusing Vietnamese security forces of kidnapping Thanh back in July 2017.
This was not the first, and is unlikely to be the last. The Communist Party of Vietnam has intensified efforts to clamp down on corruption in the country since 2016. In September 2017, ex-PetroVietnam chairman Nguyen Xuan Son was sentenced to death after the court found him guilty in a mass trial of 51 officials and bankers accused of corruption and mismanagement.
Fast forward to 17th January 2018, the 22 former PetroVietnam employees apologised to the Communist Party. But people weren’t watching the trial closely anymore.
On that same day, the national Under-23 team was playing Syria, needing only a draw to qualify for the knockout stage. And they didn’t disappoint, securing a precious 0-0 draw. Three days later, under the tense conditions of a penalty shoot-out, Vietnam beat Iraq to advance into the semi-finals.
By then, the team had already built quite a following in the football-crazy nation of 90 million people. Despite the corruption trials and supposed power struggles within the Community Party, there was actually a lot to look forward to if you were a Vietnamese.
According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s GDP per capita growth has been among the fastest in the world, averaging 6.4 percent a year in the 2000s. Extreme poverty fell from over half of the population in 1993 to less than 3 percent today. The Vietnamese people today are more educated and healthier than 20 years ago.
Yet, such poverty gains are fragile as a significant portion of the population, especially in rural areas and among ethnic minorities, still vulnerable to falling back into poverty. This has created a gap between two sides – one half of the society that is seeing greater affluence as part of the ongoing urbanization in the country, and the other half who still needs more help to rise up the income classes.
The Vietnam War, or the Second Indochina War, had also left marks that continue to scar the population until today. 43 years have passed but people still talk of divisions between the North and the South. Many wondered if Vietnam can ever fully heal from those dark days. But it seems, that day has come in the form of the beautiful game.
The best evidence of that was found in the expressions of Vietnamese people, North and South, young and old, rich and poor, when they rejoiced over the national team’s powerful semi-final performance against Qatar. The Arab nation had up until that point won every game in the tournament and were odds-on favourites to enter the final.
However, with the backing of a Red army of supporters both at home in Vietnam and at the stadium, the players gave it their all to win their second penalty shoot-out in a row.
Everyone in Vietnam and even Southeast Asia was buzzing. The underdogs just became the first Southeast Asian country to reach the AFC Under-23 Championship final. It was also the national team’s best display in a major tournament thus far.
The team was the talk of the town be it restaurants, markets or buses. Young kids were making star player Nguyen Quang Hai their role model. Everyone was ready to see Vietnam rise to the occasion and complete the fairy-tale journey that began 18 days ago. Even Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc got in on the support act telling the players, “More than 90 million Vietnamese people are behind you, cheering and following your every step.”
On the 27th January 2018, from the minute the referee blew his first whistle, virtually every Vietnamese in the country had glued their eyes to the television screens. Nobody wanted to miss the opportunity to see their national team lift that trophy for the country.
It wasn’t the best of starts already by the fact that heavy snow meant the players, perhaps for the first time, had to play in extremely cold conditions. Not to mention, they had to kick in the snow – something most Vietnamese would hardly see unless abroad.
After a tense 120 minutes including extra time, fans were secretly hoping that the team can hang on to go into the penalty shootouts, again for a third time. Out of nowhere, Andrey Sidorov rose to score the winning goal for Uzbekistan in the last minute of extra time to break Vietnamese hearts everywhere.
Dejection was an understatement for the team of course. But back in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, tears flowed but something else emerged too – pride.
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Perhaps for the first time in a long, long time, Vietnamese people were all united in one cause to support their beloved national team. Coach Park Hang-seo (who is South Korean) and his men didn’t win, but they certainly won the hearts and minds of their Vietnamese compatriots back home who could not get enough of these talented, inspiring players.
In the aftermarth, chaos may ensue with further corruption trials and tensions building within the Communist Party. There is also more work to be done to alleviate more people out of poverty.
But for one day, an entire country came together to support and salute 23 courageous young men who played their hearts out for the country. It may have just been football, but its impact far transcended all lines of ethnicity, locality and division. Perhaps, this could mark a new starting point for the young nation – allowing it to reconcile and come together as one truly united Vietnam.
Ryan Chua is the Chief Operating Officer of the ASEAN Economic Forum.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.