<
>

Vietnam resume World Cup quest, but just how much does it mean to a football-mad nation?

Vietnam's recent successes on the international stage have seen their fans take to the streets to celebrate in the thousands at every international tournament. Linh Pham/Getty Images

Vietnam are hardly considered one of Asia's traditional football heavyweights. That they are one of the 12 teams from the continent still with a chance to reach the FIFA World Cup is a testament to the progress the team has made.

They will head into the third and final round of the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022 as huge underdogs, starting with games over the next seven days against two powerhouses in Saudi Arabia and Australia -- both featured at the last World Cup in Russia.

Yet, just reaching this stage -- and being able to dream of a maiden World Cup appearance -- is already the stuff of fairy tales for a nation that can rival any in the world when it comes to the passion of its fans.

The first sign of Vietnam's rise came in January 2018 at the AFC U-23 Championship, where a group of youngsters -- who have since gone on to be regarded as the country's "golden generation" -- beat times like Australia, Syria, Iraq and Qatar to reach the final before losing to Uzbekistan.

Seven months later, the Under-23s produced another creditable showing by finishing fourth at the Asian Games, losing in the semifinals to a South Korea outfit boasting a certain Son Heung-min as one of their overage players.

The end of 2018 then saw the senior team end a decade-long wait to be crowned champions of Southeast Asia, as they won the AFF Suzuki Cup for only the second time in history.

The aftermath of that triumph saw thousands of fans take to the streets from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in wild celebration.

While fierce regional rivalries fueled some of the joy from the Suzuki Cup title, similar scenes emerged from earlier competitions, as well as when the Vietnamese reached the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.

What could be a stronger driver than bragging rights? National pride.

Vietnam are benefitting from a group of talented players all coming through at the same time.

Previous generations relied on one key player -- the likes of Le Huynh Duc, Le Cong Vinh and Nguyen Van Quyet springing to mind. Now, while there is a clear standout in Nguyen Quang Hai, Que Ngoc Hai, Nguyen Tien Linh and Do Duy Manh are equally irreplaceable on the team.

Credit also has to go to Park Hang-seo, the mastermind behind Vietnam's meteoric rise since he took over in 2017.

While K-pop and the Korean drama craze have taken the world by storm, especially in Southeast Asia, it would not be preposterous to suggest that Park is among the most-recognised and well-loved South Koreans in Vietnam.

And it has not been a case of Vietnamese fans starting to ride the wave only after the national team's fortunes improved. After all, this is not like club football where allegiances can be chosen.

The Vietnamese football faithful have stood by their team through the long-suffering years down in the doldrums, almost always filling the 40,000-capacity My Dinh National Stadium whenever their heroes are in town.

They deserve to bask in every bit of success Vietnam are currently enjoying as one of Asia's leading teams.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will not be allowed into the ground to cheer on the team in their history-making quest to qualify for the World Cup.

This is only the beginning of Vietnam's World Cup quest, with the campaign running through to next March. In an ideal world, imagine what the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City would look like if Vietnam were still in with a chance of qualifying for Qatar 2022.