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Thayer Consultancy Background Report:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Vietnam: U/23 Soccer Team
Wins AFC Semi Final
Carlyle A. Thayer
January 24, 2018

Here is an amazing image coming out of Hanoi last night after the Vietnam U23
football team got through to the AFC final.

We are looking for a stand-back take from a long-time Vietnam Watcher such as
yourself to help make sense of the reaction to an international audience. What was
behind this rare moment of national unity? Why were people so captivated by a young
sporting event? Does a sense of national pride or patriotism usually flare up this
quickly and easily?
ANSWER: I refereed soccer in Australia for over twenty years, five as linesman on the
National Soccer League. My last big game as linesman was the 1988 Gold Cup match
between Saudi Arabia and Argentina (each a champion of their respective
confederations). When I reached FIFA's mandatory retirement age I was elected
National Secretary of the Australian Soccer Referee's Federation for three 2-year
terms in office.

After Vietnam's opening up to the outside world in 1986 and the arrival of television
across the country. Vietnam became soccer mad, mad for international soccer,
regional soccer and national soccer. I have been in Vietnam during the World Cup and
you could see people squatting on the curb side avidly reading sports newspapers. At
night people gathered around TVs to watch. Once during my stay at the Army Guest
House all the staff went absent in the evening to watch soccer.
In the past during Southeast Asian games wild motorcycle convoys would form
spontaneously to race around the street waving the red flag with the gold star at the
end of the match. Indeed, such soccer crowds became a concern of local police. Some
commentators saw motorcycle cavalcades as part youthful exuberance and part social
protest. How better to thumb your nose at the local police than wrapped in the
national flag patriotically celebrating a victory!
Soccer is about national identity as Vietnam began to integrate with the world. You
don't have to be a 200-pound gorilla to play soccer. The small and the tall can compete
on more or less equal terms. Team work and individual brilliance suit the Vietnamese
personality. They thrive on skill matched with cunning on the pitch. Playing and
defeating regional states enhances Vietnam’s self-perception of itself. Likewise, losing
causes a temporary drop in morale; but there is always the next game! Winning at
soccer is self-validating, Vietnam has broken out of its Cold War isolation as a member
of the socialist camp and joined the Asian Confederation of soccer playing nations.
The phenomenon of caring wildly about the U-23s is not just a Vietnamese trait. In
many other countries when a youth team does well the public responds. I know from
Australian experience how quickly the public can refocus from a national team doing
poorly to an under-age team that does well. It should be noted that every four years
FIFA holds a World Youth Cup, the underage equivalent of the World Cup.
And for the historical record - soccer comes from the original name used in England -
Association Football. Association got abbreviated Assoc. and later this gave birth to

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: U/23 Soccer Team Wins AFC Semi
Final,” Thayer Consultancy Background Report, January 24, 2018. All background briefs
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.