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Vietnam’s football team through eyes of interpreters

Monday, May 16, 2016, 10:57 GMT+7

Since the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) hired its first foreign coach in 1994, the men who have been appointed language assistants have all had their stories to tell about the little known job.

In 1994, Brazilian Edson Tavares became Vietnam’s first foreign head coach, requiring that an interpreter be appointed for the very first time.

With no personnel available from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or from the Ho Chi Minh City Department of External Affairs, in addition to a limited budget, the VFF appointed the then assistant coach Duong Vu Lam to serve as interpreter for the coach on a monthly salary of VND500,000 (US$23).

Doping allegations

According to Lam, Tavares was a strict coach who placed particular emphasis on improving players’ stamina.

After each intensive training session, Lam said, Tavares would give each of his players a candy, telling them to eat it immediately.

It was this unusual habit that soon gave rise to rumors about doping, and placed him under secret investigation by the VFF.

Eventually it was revealed that the candies were vitamin C supplements that Tavares used as a mental therapy for the players.

Tavares also proposed the employment of professional masseurs to help the team relax after training, but the proposal was rejected by the VFF due to a lack of available funds.

“Tavares improvised by teaching me basic massage techniques in only two nights, and the two of us became the team’s masseurs thereafter. After only a few days, our hands blistered and became calloused,” Lam recalled.


Duong Vu Lam (R, 2nd) when he was the language assistant for Brazilian coach Edson Tavares. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The wit of Coach Weigang

After Tavares’s resignation in 1995, German Karl-Heinz Weigang took over the job of head coach.

Under Weigang’s regime, Lam recalled, the team was taken abroad for the first time ever to prepare for the 18th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Thailand the same year.

Medical insurance was bought for the squad while they trained in Germany, but did not include their stay in Switzerland afterwards.

Unfortunately, one of the team’s goalkeepers, Nguyen Van Dong, snapped his two anterior cruciate ligaments during a training session in Switzerland.

The fee for an uninsured operation would have been up to US$20,000 at the time, but Coach Weigang was able to convince the doctors at a hospital in Germany that the goalkeeper’s accident had occurred in the European country, and Dong received his operation free of charge.

From volunteer to language assistant

Pham Truong Minh was a senior undergraduate majoring in English at Hanoi University when he volunteered to help organize the 2007 AFC Asian Cup co-hosted by Vietnam and three other countries.

Minh was appointed assistant to the general coordinator from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and has since spent eight years working for the VFF in various positions including interpreter for the three most recent foreign coaches Henrique Calisto, Falko Goetz, and Toshiya Miura.

Minh said Calisto had made the biggest impression of the three, thanks to the coach’s sense of humor and tendency to surprise people in a positive way.

According to Minh, Calisto would randomly call out a player’s name while he was waiting for food at the dining table and then toss a small bowl or plate over for the player to catch, a ritual his players would be ready for.

Another habit of the Portuguese coach was to creep up behind players' backs and start barking or meowing, then wait for a reaction.

Calisto’s friendliness, Minh said, made everyone feel like they were part of a big family instead of training with the team.

Coach Riedl and the scrimmage vest

It might not be known by many that until 18 years ago, Vietnam’s national football team had not even had scrimmage vests to wear during practice, and during internal practice matches one of the two teams would have to take off their jerseys in order to distinguish themselves.

The introduction of the scrimmage vest, a piece of sportswear made of mesh and used in practice as a substitute for the team’s usual kit, came with Austrian coach Alfred Riedl in 1998.

Phan Anh Tu, Riedl’s interpreter at the time, said, “Coach Riedl was the man that transformed Vietnam’s attitude towards professional football. Thanks to his consistent criticisms about the player’s uniform, we got to wear scrimmage vests in practice for the first time. For me, that was his greatest legacy.”

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