Boundless energy and 'Uncle Park' - why Vietnam is dreaming of the World Cup

An escalating series of successes has got Vietnam dreaming of a maiden appearance at the World Cup -- and it's an ambition that suddenly doesn't seem all that far-fetched.

Nationwide street parties broke out last year when Vietnam reached the final of the Asia U23 Championships and won the Southeast Asian title, but that would be nothing if they qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

It is not out of the question for the country of 95 million, who have never previously come close to appearing on the world stage but can now count themselves among Asia's best.

Vietnam followed up a successful 2018 by reaching the last eight of the Asian Cup in January, losing narrowly to eventual finalists Japan and breaking into the top 100 of FIFA's world rankings.

Qualification starts in September for the Qatar World Cup, which FIFA hopes to expand to a record 48 teams, and star forward Cong Phuong says Vietnam are ready to take the next step.

"I do believe it is possible if we have boundless energy, endless efforts and good luck like we had at the Asian Cup," Phuong told AFP.

"We have a great spirit in the Vietnam team and with our coach Mr. Park, he will definitely be a big help for us to qualify."

"Mr. Park" is Park Hang-seo, the South Korean coach who took over Vietnam's national team in 2017.

A member of South Korea's 2002 World Cup coaching staff, when the co-hosts reached the semifinals, the bespectacled Park has been credited with making Vietnam fitter, harder to beat and mentally stronger.

Park, nicknamed 'Uncle Park' in his adopted home, has become so popular that a documentary of his life was released in Vietnam late last year and he has reportedly been discussed in private calls between the prime minister of Vietnam and the president of South Korea.

The 60-year-old, a well-known figure in his homeland, has even been credited with helping bring the two nations closer together after a recent survey showed that the number of Vietnamese people with a positive image of South Korea jumped from 61 percent in February 2018 to 73.8 percent a year later.

- 'Huge investment' -

Park's arrival coincided with the emergence of a new generation of young players, many of whom are products of the HAGL-Arsenal JMG Academy in the Vietnamese highlands.

This facility, funded by the Vietnamese conglomerate that also has a team in the V-League, and partnered with the English Premier League giants, is regarded as one of the best in Asia.

Phuong is one of its finest alumni and the 24-year-old has already played more than 30 times for his country.

"The new wave of talent has come through the different age levels together," he said.

"Vietnam have invested steadily in the youth system over the past decade," said Phuong. "We are now seeing the fruits of that huge investment."

Park has encouraged Vietnamese players to head overseas in order to develop further. Phuong is one of three players to leave the V-League, saying goodbye to HAGL to join South Korea's Incheon United earlier this month. Goalkeeper Dang Van Lam and midfielder Xuan Truong have joined Thai giants Muangthong United and Buriram United respectively.

Sending players abroad is seen as a positive and necessary step in the journey to the upper levels of Asian football, and helps provide a new image for Vietnam after past scandals related to corruption and match-fixing.

"It is good for Vietnam to have players overseas," Phuong said. "When we played against Japan in the (Asian Cup) quarter-final and lost 1-0, we saw they were full of overseas players but we were able to compete with them quite well.

"I think that going abroad can make us even more competitive. We want to keep improving."

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