Shortly after leading Vietnam to a historic run at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship, coach Park Hang-seo traveled to the Central Highlands to meet Doan Nguyen Duc, a businessman who has hugely contributed to the development of Vietnam’s football for nearly two decades.
Vietnam finished second at the U23 competition in China late last month, losing 1-2 to Uzbekistan in extra time in a snowy final on January 27.
The Vietnamese players and their South Korean coach Park were still welcomed as heroes when they returned to Vietnam the following day.
After all celebrations, Park flew all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, where he continued to board a flight to Pleiku, the capital of Gia Lai Province, to meet Duc and say thanks to him on February 1.
He has reasons to do so.
Upon being assigned to take the helm at both the U23 and national teams in October 2017, the South Korean coach visited Duc at his football academy, Hoang Anh Gia Lai, in Pleiku twice later the same year, and was impressed with how professional the training center is.
Park has said he also admired Duc for the amount of time, money and effort he has tirelessly spent on developing the academy, which has indeed provided a number of great players to Vietnamese football teams of all levels.
|Coach Park Hang seo is welcomed upon his arrival to Pleiku. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Six players out of the Vietnamese squad making history at the Asian U23 championship are Hoang Anh Gia Lai trained, including team captain Xuan Truong, Van Toan, Cong Phuong, Van Thanh, Hong Duy and Chau Ngoc Quang.
All of the six played a crucial role in the historic run of the Golden Stars in China.
Upon knowing that Park would pay him a visit, Duc canceled an overseas business trip to wait for the South Korean hero coach.
Football supporters in Pleiku also took to the street, even when it was biting cold with temperatures below 17 degrees Celsius, to greet Park on the night of February 1.
|Coach Park Hang seo is welcomed upon his arrival to Pleiku. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
The last time people in this mountainous city have welcomed a football hero was 17 years ago, when Duc stunned the whole country for being able to sign Thai star striker Kiatisak for Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC.
Six years after that milestone, Duc took another step to prove his audacious ambition to make Vietnam a football power, at least in Southeast Asia, by establishing the Hoang Anh Gia Lai academy.
The business tycoon agreed to have a large area of rubber plantations destroyed before harvest to make space for the football training center, which would exactly a decade later introduce to Vietnamese football aficionados half a dozen young stars.
|Doan Nguyen Duc jacket watches his players during a training session at his football academy in this 2007 file photo. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Caring from afar
Duc finished his reception for Park Hang-seo when it was near midnight, but still accepted to continue sitting down for an interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
Asked of his feelings when watching the snowy final between Vietnam and Uzbekistan in China, Duc said he had turned down all invitations by friends and colleagues to watch the match alone in his room.
“I needed privacy to be able to express all my feelings which I don’t want anyone to know,” the 56-year-old said.
Duc said he was happy seeing all what the U23 players had achieved, but also felt hurt seeing them having to play under such extreme weather conditions.
“I made a slight smile after the final game as I know I couldn’t ask for anything more from the players, when they had to play under such a foul weather.”
Vietnam U23s were welcomed by an hours-long parade upon landing in Hanoi, but Duc was not there at the airport to greet his men when they started to leave the plane.
Asked about his absence, Duc said it does not matter if he would receive the players then.
“To me what’s most important is what I have done to Vietnam’s football,” he explained.
“How I love the boys is something people all know over the last decade and I don’t think I need to be present amid the crowd.
“These men are the pride of the whole nation, not me as an individual.”
|File photo of Doan Nguyen Duc. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Besides the second-place, Vietnam also won the Fair Play award at the AFC U23 Championship.
“The U23 players, trained not only by Hoang Anh Gia Lai but also other football academies, have good education background besides their football skills and techniques,” Duc said in explaining why the players deserved the Fair Play award.
“The players can quickly follow instructions by the coach and also refrain from foul plays or arguing with the referees.”
After Xuan Truong, Tuan Anh and Cong Phuong ‘graduated’ from the Hoang Anh Gia Lai academy, Duc sent them to play at the Japanese and South Korea football leagues, though many view that none of them really achieved success in those journeys.
Duc rejected these points of view, asserting that his players “learned many thing,” proven by their performance in China, by playing at K-League and J-League, even though they were rarely sent to the pitch.
|Vietnam's Xuan Truong (left) plays for South Korea Gangwon club. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Vietnam U23 captain Xuan Truong was eventually sent back to play at V-League 1, the country’s top-flight competition, a move Duc said was meant to “please [Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC] sponsor.”
“Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC has to have good ranking at V-League 1 and this is why I rejected many offers to have Xuan Truong, Cong Phuong and Van Thanh to play for Thai or European clubs,” he added.
All for Vietnam’s football
Besides Duc, Vietnam also has another enthusiastic ‘booster’ for the country’s football, Vo Quoc Thang, who used to be chairman of the Dong Tam Long An FC.
When Henrique Calisto, one of the best foreign coaches of the Vietnamese national football team, began his Vietnam job, it was Thang who paid him extra salary, besides the wage officially covered by the Vietnam Football Federation.
Duc, for his part, is also paying extra salary to Park Hang-seo, he confirmed in the Tuoi Tre interview.
“Why should we watch the pennies when paying football coaches with real talent?” Duc said.
“I will continue to pay monthly salary to coach Park until his contract ends in late 2019.
“What Thang and I have been and are still doing is to serve only one dream – helping Vietnam’s football to fly high and far as soon as possible.”
|Doan Nguyen Duc and Park Hang Seo in Pleiku on February 1 2018. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Duc acknowledged that Vietnam U23s will under big pressure when they compete at the 2018 Asian Games (Asiad) this August, following their fairytale run at the U23 championship.
“But I do not worry as Park is an experienced coach and he will surely know how to free his men from pressure,” he said.
Asked if he would have to shut down the football academy if earnings from his business no longer afford its operations, Duc shook his head in denial.
“The football academy and the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Hospital should be maintained even after I get older and weaker, and die.”
|Students are seen at a training session at the Hoang Anh Gia Lai football academy. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Eleven years have gone by since Duc planted the first seed for his football dream, but Vietnam have yet to win the gold medal of the men’s football at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, where Vietnam have competed in the men’s football competition since 1995.
Despite having made it to the final five times, in 1995, 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2009, the team have never won. They claimed bronze in 2015, and Cong Phuong and Xuan Truong were among the official squad when Vietnam were again eliminated from the group stage in the latest edition in Malaysia in 2017.
Duc admitted that these failures at the SEA Games, where under-23 players compete in the men’s football category, is the most unforgettable pain for him over the last 11 years.
|Vietnam's Cong Phuong (10) leaves the pitch after a loss at the 2017 SEA Games in Malaysia. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
“When I decided to have my rubber plantation chopped down to make space for the football academy, my biggest dream was to be able to train a generation of footballers capable of taking home the SEA Games gold medal,” he said.
“That dream remains unrealized now that the first and second graduates of my academy are over 23 years old, which is so painful and regretful to me.”
But Duc quickly added that he has “put all those failures behind my back”, and never gives up on cherishing that dream.
“I am putting all expectation on the next-generation graduates of my football academy and other training centers, hoping that they will be able to better their brothers,” he said.