In 2010, a few events were simultaneously taking place in Vietnamese football. They had just been beaten 3-1 by an Indian team that had Sunil Chhetri as their striker.
Their football association was going through elections and candidates were offering attractive cash prizes to players for winning regional tournaments. The Vietnamese chair at that time, Nguyen Trong Hy, suggested that the country should begin naturalizing players from different parts of the world – an argument that continues to be made for Indian football today, albeit for Indian-origin players.
Cut to 12 years later. Vietnam has made it to the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup. The senior team is perfectly placed to make it to the 2026 World Cup where Asian countries will have 8.5 quota spots (eight direct qualifiers and one team going into intercontinental playoffs). Their junior teams are thriving with rapid growth fuelled by private investment in football academies at the youth level. No special cash prizes for competition wins, just an insistence on investment in grassroots football.
India in 2022 continue to look towards their talismanic striker who scored a hat-trick against Vietnam 12 years ago, quite comfortably out of World Cup scenarios and barely making it to the Asian Cup. The growth of Vietnam, and the lack of it in India in the past 12 years, is likely to be on show on Tuesday when both teams meet at the Thống Nhất Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City in an international friendly.
The friendly is part of the Hung Thinh Friendly Football Tournament – featuring India, ranked 104th, Singapore (159) and hosts Vietnam (97). In this case, FIFA rankings are not indicative of any of these teams’ true footballing merit. While Vietnam were playing in the third round of World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, India, a mere 13 places behind them in world rankings, drew 1-1 against Singapore in their first friendly on Saturday.
Lot to work on
Singapore were far too organized in their passing and positioning to be that far down in FIFA rankings and their performance against India was indicative that the difference of over 50 ranking-positions between the two countries was not an accurate reflection of reality displayed over the 90-minute stalemate.
This was in sharp contrast to India, who were playing their first game of the tournament and missing a few key players. The performance – barring some individual moments of moving the ball forward, especially by Ashique Kuruniyan – really wasn’t much to write home about.
India will have their first-choice centre-back pairing of Sandesh Jhingan and Chinglesana Singh back for their match against Vietnam. But they still miss a few key players – chief among them being Apuia Ralte, a midfielder who can sit at the heart of the pitch and pirouette for days around opposition players. An answer to India’s question of progression forward on the pitch through midfield, Ralte is currently in Belgium on a training stint with Lommel SK – an affiliate club of City Football Group. Chhetri, at 38 years old, is in a rich vein of form and will lead the Indian attack yet again.
India head coach Igor Stimac made it clear that Vietnam was going to be a tougher opponent for his team and that they would have to concentrate and execute far better for a successful game. The Croatian was recently handed a contract extension until the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
“It will be a very different game against a much stronger opponent, so our approach will also change accordingly,” Stimac told the AlFF website. “We need to be more focused, especially on vertical football and quick transitions. At the same time, we must maintain focus on our defence as well. They pose a real threat from long- range shots, and from their crosses, and we need to be able to deal with that.”