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Moneyball in Vietnam

Apr 15,2019
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Choi Jong-hag
The author is a professor at Seoul National University Business School.

The biggest star in Vietnam nowadays is Park Hang-seo, the head coach of the country’s men’s national football team. He happens to be a Korean. Wherever he goes, Park is mobbed by Vietnamese people wanting to take a photo with him or receive his autograph. Korean companies that chose him for their advertisements experienced increases in sales. Vietnam’s state-run TV broadcaster, VTV, even named him Person of the Year in December 2018.

The first sign that he would be a huge hit in Vietnam came in January 2018, when Park, who is also head coach of Vietnam’s under-23 squad, led the team to the final of the Asian Football Confederation U-23 Championship and placed second. Park then led the men’s national football team to fourth place in the 2018 Asian Games and beat Malaysia in the 2018 to win the AFP Championship. At the 2019 AFC Asian Cup last January, Vietnam reached the semifinals, which was the furthest a Southeast Asian country advanced in the tournament and the same final ranking as Korea. Whenever Park’s team won, Vietnamese people dashed through the streets waving both the national flags of Vietnam and Korea. Park could arguably be called the pioneer of sports Hallyu (the wave of Korean culture).

How did Park manage to succeed? His leadership style is often compared to that of a father figure, meaning he’s known for treating his athletes with love and affection, which encourages them to play well on the field. For instance, he once gave his business-class seat to an injured midfielder who was flying economy while the team was traveling to Malaysia for the 2018 AFP Championship. He gave massages to his players. Analysts say he’s a leader who knows how to trust his members, wait for them and listen to their opinions.

But I don’t think that’s the entire story of his success. The anecdotes go to show how wonderful a man Park personally is, but they’re not enough to explain how Vietnam’s football team is suddenly winning. Applying this to a company or a nation, a person with good character can make a small change if he or she were to become a president of that company or nation. But it’d be hard for that company or nation to suddenly become well off.

So there could be another reason behind Park’s success that many of us don’t know about. I’d like to focus on the fact that Park was an assistant manager for Guus Hiddink for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when the Korean men’s football team made history by advancing to the semifinals.

Before Hiddink became manager of the team, connections were really crucial in the Korean football business. The manager of the national football team and its players depended very much on who led the Korea Football Association and from which school that person graduated. But Hiddink arrived in Korea not knowing anything about that. And as manager, he relied only on objective data when he chose who would make the men’s national team for the 2002 FIFA games, gauging each player’s strengths and weaknesses using 20 different criteria. And based on those criteria, players like Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo and Cha Doo-ri — who, at the time, weren’t well-known players — were selected. And after they were chosen, they were trained based on factual data as well. Each player repeatedly saw videos of their moves during actual games to review their weaknesses and overcome them. Thanks to this method, their moves dramatically improved. Scientific leadership, or scientific training, is what led to Korea’s semifinal miracle during the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Park Hang-seo is known to have been chosen as Vietnam’s head coach because he was assistant manager to Hiddink. When Park first led the Vietnamese team, he barely knew about Vietnamese football. So he, too, tested the physical abilities of players based on 20 different criteria and fairly chose the best members using that data.

It’s been long since Vietnam was unified, but tensions between the southern and northern sides of the country still remain to this day. So before Park was named head coach, members of Vietnam’s national football team heavily relied on which part of Vietnam the head coach was from, and there was sometimes conflict between players from different parts of the country. But Park’s way of objectively selecting players must have diminished a lot of that. And his show of affection towards the players must have helped them unite as a team.

Park realized that the players had weak physical strength. So Park changed their diet so they could consume various nutrients, and based on the result of their physical tests, offered different trainings to each member. Such scientific training methods worked. Park once credited his success to going back to the basics. In a nutshell, the secret to Park’s success was that he diagnosed the cause of failure through scientific analysis, and using that, gave precise prescriptions and made sure his players followed through.

His fatherly leadership is necessary, but that’s not enough. No matter how good a character a leader of a team, company or country has, if that leader can’t see which direction they have to go toward, or don’t know how to get there, then the future of that group will be gloomy.

All leaders of Korea should be aware of this.

Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Sunday, April 13, Page 31