The streets of Vietnam were filled with ecstatic football fans on Monday night after the men's squad got through to the semifinals at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. Throngs of fans clad in red T-shirts with the yellow star of the communist nation poured into the streets of major cities waving their country's flag and the flag of Korea.
Fans set off fireworks and honked their motorcycle horns late into the night. The scenes were reminiscent of the euphoria that gripped Korea during the 2002 World Cup. This time, team Vietnam, led by Korean coach Park Hang-seo (59), defeated Syria at the Asian Games to make it to the semifinals for the first time ever.
In January this year the Vietnamese men's football team came second in the under-23 tournament hosted by the Asian Football Confederation. The continued success has led to an even more intense reaction among fans there.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc telephoned Park after the match to congratulate him. After the match with Syria, Park caused a sensation when he was seen on TV shouting "We are Vietnam!"
Vietnamese fans did not have huge expectations for the men's team ahead of the Asian Games. Their best performance had been to make it to the quarterfinals in the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. Fielding the same players at the Asian Games as he did during the U-23 tournament, Park's team defeated Japan for the first time ever to finish the preliminary round at the top of its group.
Park, who was Dutch manager Guus Hiddink's assistant during the 2002 World Cup, applied Hiddink's coaching techniques to the Vietnamese men's football team. Until now, Vietnamese fans believed their team had the will but lacked the physical strength to beat other teams. But Park cited a lack of technique and fighting spirit, applying a strategy of maximizing the team's organization and instilling confidence in every team member.
He also observed the culture of Vietnam. Due to its hot and humid climate, Vietnamese people start their day at 6 a.m. and take a long siesta, so he started training early and let them take afternoon naps but replaced their morning meals with meat and milk instead of rice noodles. He also personally massaged the feet of injured athletes and gave handwritten letters to players on their birthdays. Thanks to the "paternal" leadership style, the players look up to him like a father.
Now Vietnam faces off against Park's home country in the semifinals on Wednesday night. The Asian Games carry painful memories for Park, who became manager of the Korean team at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan but was fired after losing to Iran in a penalty shoot-out in the semifinals. He then went on to serve as a K-League coach until being hired by the Vietnamese team.
"My country is Korea and I love my home country," he said. "But right now, I will do my best as the coach of the Vietnamese national squad."