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Vietnam’s World Cup Debut Could Be Short And Sweet

Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy (L) celebrates with Vietnam's captain Huynh Nhu (R) after a goal during the women's football match between Vietnam and Philippines at RSN Stadium during the 32nd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Phnom Penh on May 9, 2023. (Photo by NHAC NGUYEN / AFP) (Photo by NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images)
NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

Of all the eight teams making their World Cup debuts this year, Vietnam faces the steepest climb out of their group. Their reward for winning a pair of post–Asian Cup playoffs in February of 2022 to make history as the first Vietnamese men's or women's team to make it to soccer's biggest stage? Dates with the reigning World Cup champs of the United States, the reigning World Cup runners up of the Netherlands, and an up-and-coming Portugal team. By all rights, they should be happy simply arriving in New Zealand and enjoying the experience of witnessing the full-bore USWNT before they go home to try and keep climbing in Asia and restart the qualification process for 2027.

But Vietnam has shown some real spirit and organization over the past year, and as minnows go, they are at the very least set up to fight hard against the big teams. Manager Mai Duc Chung brings a frankly extreme level of experience to the tournament: he's coached at several levels in the men's youth setup, led a handful of Vietnamese club teams, briefly and successfully navigated the men's team through a tricky, important few matches on an interim basis in 2017, and, most relevant of all, is currently in his fourth stint coaching the women's program. He knows exactly how he wants his team to play, setting them up in a tough-to-crack 5–4–1 against superior opposition, with two experienced defensive midfielders holding down the middle of the pitch and a pair of wingers whose job it is to work long, vertical passes to the team's star striker. They just played admirably in a 2-1 loss to Germany, and the starting lineup is stacked with players in their primes. They will not roll over for anyone.

Vietnam owes their qualification to the expanded field, though the team has earned steadily better results over the past decade. After previously never making it out of their group at the Asian Cup, Vietnam has finished sixth at two out of the last three tournaments. They have established themselves as the best team in Southeast Asia, and they've already sent a player to Europe. Behind the group of in-prime stars, Vietnam has several early-20s players who should make an impact in New Zealand. There's a lot to like here, even if there's virtually no chance they play a fourth game at the 2023 World Cup.

Who Is Their Star?

Huynh Nhu is the aforementioned star striker and Europe-based player. Huynh is a force with the ball at her feet, and given Vietnam's tendency to play her as the lone forward, she gets plenty of opportunities to receive the ball in space and make plays happen. Defenders who play her too close get cooked all the time, but you also cannot give her too much space, since she is a gifted passer in tight spaces. This first move here in her highlight reel is nasty.

The 31-year-old is Vietnam's all-time leading scorer, with a cool 67 goals in just 72 games. That tally includes a hat trick on her debut and, last year, the first goal in Vietnam's critical 2-0 win over Thailand in a World Cup qualification playoff. Huynh started playing top-flight soccer for Ho Chi Minh City when she was just 16, and after ending her decorated 15-year domestic career with her seventh championship, Huynh set off for Portugal. She signed a two-year deal with Vilaverdense of the Portuguese top division, and she helped them to a sixth-place league finish with seven goals in 14 league games. Huynh says she was warned off trying her luck in Europe, but after seeing men's player Nguyen Quang Hai make the jump to France in 2022 (he's already back home after 12 Ligue 2 games), she wanted to try her own luck. The bet looks to have paid off.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Nguyen Thi Thanh Nha is Huynh's understudy, a 21-year-old forward who has already been playing top-division soccer for seven years in Vietnam. She's super fast off the ball, and while she'll never be the dribbler Huynh is, she's a different type of player who gives her team a different look. Nguyen loves to play direct, which gels with Vietnam's style of play, and she's pretty good in the air too. If Mai Duc Chung really commits to the 5–4–1, it's not clear how much playing time Nguyen can expect, though she's also too good to keep off the pitch. Vietnam figures to be chasing the game in at least one of their three group-stage games, and getting your fastest player on the field to scream out on some counterattacks seems wise.

When Vietnam played an eye-opening 2-1 game against Germany last month, it was Nguyen who scored in stoppage time to halve Germany's lead, easily gapping both center backs then smacking in a cool finish.

Who Is Their Enemy?

Vietnam would like to join the Asian elite, though they have a paltry 1–0–48 combined record against South Korea, Japan, Australia, and China. So, with that off the board, their principle rivals are the other top-class teams of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand. While they have a winning record against all three, they've also dropped recent competitive matches against the Philippines in the Southeast Asian games and Myanmar in the 2022 AFF Women's Championship 3rd place match. This has the makings of a pretty fun three-way rivalry, even as Thailand has tailed off a bit as of late. The Philippines is also making their World Cup debut here in 2023, and though they will have a slightly easier group than Vietnam, they too will be up against it. The next clash will likely come this fall, when they contend the Asian Games in China.

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

Tran Hung Dao, also known as Tran Quoc Tuan, has an extra-cool statue built in his honor in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City (Ho Chi Minh is also a great candidate for this category) and he cemented his place in Vietnamese lore back in the 13th century when he led a series of successful defenses against Mongol invaders. Tran was a prince in the Tran Dynasty who first served as an officer when the Mongols invaded in 1258, briefly taking control of the country before a succession struggle for control of the horde forced them to withdraw within a year. The Mongols, now established as the Yuan Dynasty in China, came back 27 years later, by which point Tran was commanding all Vietnamese forces, and again they took the capital. But Tran beat them back out of the country with a series of brilliant guerrilla maneuvers and nimble naval counterattacks, outthinking the heavier Mongol cavalry armies and forcing them to retreat within months of their successful push to capture modern day Hanoi.

Embarrassed at the pair of defeats, the Yuan forces came back in 1288 intending to take over the region once and for all. For the third time, they quickly took over the capital, and for a third time, Tran and his forces repelled the invaders. The decisive Battle of Bach Dang has gone down in history as a work of tactical genius, with Tran's forces baiting the Yuan fleet to pursue them from a coastal area near Ha Long Bay, up the Bach Dang River. They attacked at high tide, tricking the pursuing Yuan fleet into coming after them as the tide went out, revealing a bunch of sharp metal spears that anchored the fleet in place, allowing the Vietnamese to crush the Yuan forces.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Nothing on this earth can rival Vietnamese cuisine, and as fun as it would be to throw down some doi huyet or slurp a big enriching bowl of pho in the stands, when scran is the move, banh mi, the finest sandwich known to man, is the vibe. Honestly you should go have one for lunch today, don't be shy. Crisp slices of lightly sour, heavily effervescent veggies are balanced out by whatever fatty ballast you prefer; traditionally, it's some sort of roast pork or pate, but tofu or shiitakes also work fine. Every stadium in America should serve banh mi, thank you.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

It's pretty simple: get a point! I would love to see the Vietnamese team upset the Netherlands or Portugal, but realistically, getting their first World Cup goal and maybe also their first World Cup point would be great for them.

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