Vietnam meets the mighty USWNT in a game-changing game they certainly can’t win
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Vietnam’s arduous journey to its first World Cup has spanned everything from regional rivals to patriarchal norms. It started decades ago, but decades after the American War – for years after reunification, the country unofficially banned women from playing soccer. So the journey officially began in 1997, with the women’s national team in oversized men’s jerseys and with no financial support. It was a wild ride for the quarter century that followed.
It passed through Nakhon Sawan (Thailand) and Adelaide (Australia) as well as Chengdu (China). It stretched as far as Amman, Jordan and Pune, India. It was moving through a country, Vietnam, that loves football but lacks the resources to support it. Instead, individual players pushed it with passion – and often with part-time jobs, perhaps selling coconuts or bread, to fund their sport.
They often came out of poverty to push the women’s national team to Asian Cups and to the brink of World Cup qualification. In 2015, they just fell behind. But last winter they conquered Thailand and Taiwan and wormed their way into the expanded 32-team field. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, they were given a heroic welcome at the Presidential Palace. The final stages of the journey took them through central streets and ceremonies with the President and Prime Minister of Vietnam in a double-decker bus.
And it concludes in Auckland at Eden Park on Saturday with a game Vietnam certainly cannot win.
“We will have very appropriate tactics to minimize goals conceded and injuries,” head coach Mai Duc Chung said through a translator on Friday. “And if we can score a goal, that would be great!”
They meet the United States (Friday at 9pm ET, Fox), the powerful USA women’s national team, the back-to-back world champions who have spent the better part of three decades at the top of their sport. “We are now facing a very large, high mountain,” Mai said. The USWNT is the favorite to win the game at -50,000 with an implied probability of 99.8%. The last time the Americans played a World Cup game against a Southeast Asian team of superficially similar caliber, they defeated Thailand 13-0.
This is, of course, where the discourse on the 2023 USWNT World Championship kick-off began.
“Are you going to crush us like Thailand did four years ago?” a Vietnam News Agency reporter asked US head coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday.
In fact, it started last month. At USWNT’s pre-tournament media day in Los Angeles, a journalist asked a question about that Thailand game and everything that followed – the ridiculous debates over whether the USWNT should have upped the score and the divisive arguments over their celebrations.
Alex Morgan didn’t fully address the question. Instead, she questioned its premise.
“If you look at this tournament and the games we’re going to play, you can’t compare our game against Thailand to the upcoming games,” Morgan said. “We have incredible respect for Vietnam.”
She cited a data point that suggested she was right. In a friendly before the tournament, Vietnam held their own against Germany, a long-term rival. It lost 1:2 – only 2-1
However, other data points were a little more ominous. The final Vietnamese friendly before last week’s tournament here in New Zealand ended 9-0 against Spain. Even at the Asian Cup, Vietnam’s road to qualification, they failed to win any of their first four games. Its players are almost all semi-professional. Its star, Huynh Nhu, the first Vietnamese ever to play professionally abroad, reportedly makes about $1,600 a month playing in the Portuguese second tier – or about a fifteenth of what a single USWNT player earns for winning a single one earned a World Cup qualifier.
And while US players grew up touring plush pitches in elaborate gear, “when I first started playing soccer, it wasn’t a ball, it wasn’t a coconut,” Nhu said Friday. “Or a papaya.”
“But now I’m playing on the biggest stage in the world,” she said with a smile at a press conference. “For me it’s like a fairy tale.”
She and her teammates have come a long way to get to this point. “Our life in the past was very, very difficult,” Mai said. “We never had the chance to play with the top team in the world.” Now that they’re doing it, “we still have a lot to learn,” he said. “We are here to learn from all the teams in the world.”
They are also here with a “ghost,” Nhu said.
They’re all beaming, touring Eden Park and posing for awesome photos, but “we don’t just come here for tourism,” Mai clarified. “We are here to play.”
US players and coaches expect them to be “organized” and persistent. A 6-0 defeat is possible, if not likely, but a 13-0 replay seems unlikely. “We have witnessed that [Thailand] fiasco,” Nhu recently told the New York Times. “Thailand suffered such a great loss, they just fell behind and their fighting spirit is gone. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will keep fighting.”
“We [will] Do our best,” Mai said on Friday.
They will play with “pride” and have “nothing to lose”.
But do they think they can? win?
Friday’s question drew laughter from the Vietnamese media and a smile from Mai.
“I mean, if we can win, that’s wonderful,” he said. “We do not reject that.”