AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Vietnam’s arduous journey to its first World Cup traversed everything from regional rivals to patriarchal norms. It began decades ago, but decades after the American War — because for years after reunification, the country unofficially banned women from playing soccer. So the journey officially commenced in 1997, with the women’s national team in oversized men’s jerseys and without financial support. Over the quarter-century that followed, it has been a wild ride.
It wound through Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, and Adelaide, Australia, and Chengdu, China. It stretched to Amman, Jordan and Pune, India. It wove through a nation, Vietnam, that adores soccer but lacked the means to support it. Individual players instead fueled it with passion — and often with day jobs, perhaps selling coconuts or bread to subsidize their pursuit of sport.
They often came from poverty to push the women’s national team to Asian Cups, and to the brink of World Cup qualification. They fell just short in 2015. But last winter, they conquered Thailand and Taiwan, and snuck into the expanded 32-team field. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, they received heroine’s welcomes at the presidential palace. The journey’s final stages took them on a double-decker bus through central streets, and to ceremonies with the Vietnamese president and prime minister.
And it will conclude Saturday in Auckland, at Eden Park, with a game that Vietnam surely cannot win.
“We will have very suitable tactics so that we can minimize the conceded goals, and we can minimize the injuries,” head coach Mai Duc Chung said Friday through a translator. “And if we can score a goal, it’d be great!”
They will meet the United States (Friday at 9 p.m. ET, Fox), the mighty U.S. women’s national team, the back-to-back World Cup winners who have spent the better part of three decades atop their sport. “We are now facing a very big, high mountain,” Mai said. The USWNT is a -50000 favorite to win the game, 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 beat Thailand 13-0.
So that, of course, is where discourse around the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup opener began.
“Are you gonna crush us like Thailand four years ago?” a reporter from the Vietnam News Agency asked U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday.
In fact, it began last month. At the USWNT’s pre-tournament media day in Los Angeles, a journalist framed a question around that Thailand game and everything that followed — the ridiculous debates over whether the USWNT should have run up the score, and the polarizing arguments about their celebrations.
Alex Morgan didn’t quite entertain the question. Instead, she questioned its premise.
“Looking at this tournament, and the games that we’re going to be playing, you can’t compare our match against Thailand to any upcoming games,” Morgan said. “We have incredible respect for Vietnam.”
She cited one data point that suggested she was right. In a pre-tournament friendly, Vietnam held its own against Germany, a perennial contender. It lost 2-1 — only 2-1.
Other data points, though, have been slightly more ominous. The last Vietnamese friendly prior to the tournament, here in New Zealand last week, ended 9-0 to Spain. Even at the Asian Cup, Vietnam’s route to qualification, it failed to win any of its first four games. Its players are almost all semi-professional. Its star, Huynh Nhu, the first Vietnamese woman to ever play professionally abroad, reportedly makes around $1,600 per month in the Portuguese second division — or around 1/15th of what a single USWNT player makes for winning a single World Cup qualifying game.
And whereas U.S. players grew up touring plush fields with elaborate equipment, “when I started playing football, it was not a ball, it was a coconut,” Nhu said Friday. “Or a papaya.”
“But now, I am playing on the greatest stage in the world,” she said at a news conference filled with smiles. “It is like a fairytale for me.”
She and her teammates have traveled a long way to that stage. “Our life in the past was very, very difficult,” Mai said. “We never had the chance to play with the leading team in the world.” Now that they do, “we have many things to learn,” he said. “We are here to learn from all the teams in the world.”
They are here, too, with a “spirit,” Nhu said.
They are beaming, touring Eden Park, posing for awestruck pictures, but “we come here not just for tourism,” Mai clarified. “We are here to play.”
U.S. players and coaches expect them to be “organized” and tenacious. A 6-0 drubbing is possible, if not probable, but a 13-0 repeat seems unlikely. “We witnessed the [Thailand] fiasco,” Nhu told The New York Times recently. “Thailand suffered such a big loss, they just kind of fell backward, and their fighting spirit is no longer there. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will keep fighting.”
“We [will] try our best,” Mai said Friday.
They will play with “pride,” and with “nothing to lose.”
But do they think they can win?
The question on Friday drew laughs from Vietnamese media, and a smile from Mai.
“I mean, if we can win, that is wonderful,” he said. “We don’t refuse that.”
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