Vietnam football fans by Nhy Nguyen (Flickr)

Vietnam football fans by Nhy Nguyen (Flickr)

The next challengers for Japan’s UFWC title are Vietnam. Hardly footballing giants, the South Asian nation has never competed in the UFWC, and indeed is relatively new to international football. They will certainly be underdogs when the two side meet in Kobe for a Kirin Challenge Cup / UFWC title match on 7 October. But the UFWC has a long tradition of successful underdogs. Can Vietnam become Unofficial Football World Champions?

Vietnam has no UFWC ranking, but is placed a lowly 129th in the world in the FIFA rankings, below Luxembourg and level with Singapore, and a full 114 places behind Japan. North Vietnam and South Vietnam unified in 1976 following the civil war, but the Vietnam national team wasn’t formed until 1991, following many years of political and footballing isolation. (North and South Vietnam had played independently since the 1950s.)

Japan and Vietnam have only played each other once previously – during the group stage of the 2007 Asian Cup, with Vietnam one of four joint hosts. Japan won 4-1, with Yasuhito Endo among the scorers. (Both teams progressed to the knock-out stages – Vietnam were beaten by eventual tournament winners Iraq in the quarter finals, while Japan lost to Saudi Arabia in the semis.)

Vietnam has only played four matches this year, all World Cup qualifiers. In the first round, the Vietnamese thrashed Macau home and away, 6-0 and 7-1 respectively, winning 13-1 on aggregate. Le Cong Vinh scored a hat-trick in the first leg, and four goals in the second. The next round saw Vietnam up against much tougher opponents in Qatar, and they lost the first leg 3-0, improving substantially to win the second leg 2-1, but overall losing 4-2 on aggregate and being eliminated from the qualifying process.

Vietnam’s coach is the German Falko Götz, who has previously managed Hertha Berlin, 1860 Munich and Holstein Keil. An interesting guy, Götz was born in Rodewisch, East Germany, and began his professional playing career at FC Dynamo on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall in 1980. However, in 1983, before a European Cup match against Partizan Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Götz fled to the west. With teammate Dirk Schlegel, Götz took a taxi to the West German embassy in Belgrade, and managed to get onto a train to West Germany.

Götz was tailed by Stasi spies, and, back in East Germany, his family were interrogated by the secret service. However, he was determined to become successful in the Bundesliga. After serving a one-year FIFA-imposed ban, was allowed to sign for Bayer Leverkusen, where he won the UEFA Cup in 1988. The fact that a man who risked his life to flee from East Germany has now taken up a coaching role in communist Vietnam seems extraordinary, a sign, perhaps of changing times in the country.

Every member of the Vietnam squad plays his club football at home. Cong Vinh is the star man, having scored 31 goals in 47 games for his country. The 25-year-old striker plays for Hanoi T&T, the reigning V-League champions. He is the only Vietnamese player to have played club football in Europe, with a short, unsuccessful spell at Leixoes in Portugal in 2009/10 – a relegation season for the club. A huge star in his home county, Vinh even has the obligatory popstar girlfriend – Vietnamese singer Thuy Tien.

The national team captain is Phan Van Tai Em, a midfielder who plays for Navibank Saigon. Other Vietnamese players to watch include are a pair of goalscoring midfielders, 21-year-old Nguyen Quang Hai of Navibank Saigon and 22-year-old Nguyen Trong Hoang of Song Lam Nghe An.

Vietnam is undoubtedly a football-mad nation. Manchester United recently claimed to have 16 million fans in Vietnam (from a population of 90 million), and plan to play an exhibition in the country there next summer. It’s another footballing country that the wider world generally knows little about. That could all change on 7 October. We’ll have full build-up and coverage for Japan vs Vietnam right here.

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