Vietnam's Own Messi Is Putting His Nation on the Soccer Map

Why you should care

Because this nation is an Asian Tiger on the pitch too.

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When Nguyen Cong Phuong tipped the scales at 56 pounds, the leading local soccer team in north central Vietnam turned the 11-year-old away: He didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement. His playing career nearly over before it started, Cong Phuong vowed nothing else would stand in his way.

You could still call Cong Phuong, now 23, a shrimp, at 5-foot-6 and 146 pounds, but his countrymen call him “Messi Vietnam,” for a tricky playing style reminiscent of the Argentine superstar — even if his roughly $40,000 salary can’t match Messi’s $122 million. And in cities not known for being oases of calm, the cacophony reached a fever pitch as Vietnam’s under-23 soccer team, helmed by Cong Phuong, marched to the final of this year’s Asian Football Confederation Cup, held in China. Coffee shops, bars and even cinemas were packed with supporters clad in red with the national flag painted on their faces to watch the televised matches. After each successive win, thousands of Vietnamese took to the streets amid a deafening symphony of motorbike horns and kitchen utensils beating against any available surface.

Daily gym sessions have built strength and stamina, and relentless work on his technique has turned him into one of Vietnam’s fiercest attacking weapons.

Championship hopes were eventually dashed by Uzbekistan in an extra-time defeat. But team members by then had already been granted hero status — symbols of national pride in a country that takes its rare international sporting successes seriously. “It’s still hard to believe that it wasn’t a dream,” Cong Phuong says of the run. “It makes me very proud that the Vietnamese people showed so much belief in us. Because of them we were not lonely, but full of motivation to do our best in these games.”

Vietnam has never qualified for the World Cup, and yet fans and analysts are watching as Cong Phuong leads a dynamic new generation who could break the streak. “I believe that Vietnam has the players to be the dominant force” in Southeast Asia, says Scott McIntyre, a soccer journalist for the Asian Game and Fox Sports. “It should be a nation aiming to consistently qualify and reach the latter stages of Asian competitions and reach the World Cup.” But for a team ranked No. 113 in the world to break through, McIntyre says, Vietnam will need to free Cong Phuong and other attacking players from coach Park Hang-seo’s conservative, defense-driven “win-at-all-costs” mentality.

Speed and skill has been Cong Phuong’s game from the start. By the age of 5, playing with a ball made of straw, he was already running rings around opponents, including his mentor and older brother, Cong Khoa, who drowned in an accident at age 9.

Cong Phuong persevered, refusing to be derailed by a weight limit setback as an 11-year-old. Watching the news one night, his father heard about a collaboration between English soccer club Arsenal, French soccer school JMG Academy and Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai. The academy was recruiting new players, so father and son negotiated the 600 miles of highway between their home province of Nghe An and the school near the city of Pleiku. This time, Cong Phuong passed his trial — without a weight test.

Cong Phuong credits his success to his father, and to what is now one of the world’s most productive soccer factories. Located at a 3,000-foot elevation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Hoang Anh Gia Lai–Arsenal JMG Academy’s cooler climate provides ideal training conditions. Manicured pitches, a swimming pool and immaculate residential villas give the facility the bearing of a sports-focused resort. Vietnam’s young core, from striker Cong Phuong to midfielder Luong Xuan Truong, was forged here — and is expected to lead the national team for years to come.

“They have their own strong points and techniques to compensate for their strength and size,” says Park Hang-seo, the South Korean coach of both Vietnam’s national team and under-23 squad. “Small players are quicker and Vietnamese players are smart.” While Cong Phuong will never be a physical beast, daily gym sessions have built strength and stamina, and relentless work on his technique has turned him into one of Vietnam’s fiercest attacking weapons — both for the national side and for his club, Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC.

Cong Phuong served notice of his talent at the 2014 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Football Federation Under-19 Youth Championship when he scored a stunning last-minute winner against Australia. The strike — an end product of a maze-like run that saw him deploy his trademark sleight of foot and sudden shift of pace — got voted “Goal of the Tournament.”

Since then he has scored freely for both club and country. Cong Phuong also spent time playing for a Japanese club, after being loaned out for a season for a roughly $100,000 fee. On the way, he dodged a 2014 scandal when he was accused of fabricating his age to play in younger-age soccer competitions. The slurs were proved false, and Vietnamese national broadcaster VTV and The Thao newspaper were forced to retract the story and pay hefty fines.

It was an odd accusation for a player who’s long fought against being too tiny to play with the big boys. The same could be said of his country. Its next national team test will be the ASEAN Football Federation Cup, starting in November. Thailand has dominated in recent years, but Vietnam’s under-23 success and its nifty striker make it a hot pick. “We can be a big team in the region,” Cong Phuong says. “The players have the right mindset: They are strong and they are determined.”

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