+ A

After AFC, Coach Park finds fame in Vietnam

Jan 30,2018
이미지뷰
Left: About 50,000 football fans cheering the Vietnamese national U-23 football team from the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam on Saturday. Celebrations have been said to have went on until 2 to 3 a.m. Right: Crowds gather in mass to support the Vietnamese team immediately after they return at a city celebration on Sunday in Hanoi. [YONHAP, 24.H.COM]
이미지뷰
Once the coach of the Korean national football team, Park Hang-seo, now the head coach of the U-23 Vietnamese national football team, led his players to the finals on Saturday at the 2018 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 (U-23) Championship in China.

Though the team lost to Uzbekistan 1-2, it marks the first time the Vietnamese team has made it this far in the AFC.

As his players, all under the age of 23, grieved over their loss on the bench, the 59-year-old coach gently patted them on their backs as a gesture of support.

“Now is not the time to shed tears,” Park said to the athletes. “We must say our thanks to the citizens who cheered us on.”

Park received a warm welcome back in Vietnam, where crowds took to the streets to celebrate Vietnam’s progress. He has now earned himself the nickname “Guus Hiddink of Vietnam,” after the Dutch coach who led the Korean team to the semifinals during the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

It was the furthest Korea had gone in the World Cups, as it usually ranks in the 20th-30th range.

During his time in Korea, Park mostly coached football teams in the K League.

He once managed the Korean U-23 team for the 2002 Busan Asian Games, which came a few months after the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Public expectation was high then, as Korea had just competed in the semifinals for the World Cup and came in fourth.

In Busan, the Koreans were expecting to win gold, but when the team failed to meet expectations and delivered a bronze, public criticism against him began to rise.

Since then, Park never coached a national team, until he got a chance to head the Vietnamese team.

Park took over the team in October and worked with the players for three months before entering the championships this month in Changzhou, China.

The team played fiercely against Australia in the preliminary round before beating Iraq in the quarterfinals and Qatar in the semifinals.

But as they surged into the finals, the team was hit by a snow storm, with some members seeing snow for the very first time. Still, they pushed through 1-1 until the final minutes of overtime, when Uzbekistan scored the winning goal.

The historic game garnered 140,000 online views, with netizens calling Vietnam’s advancement proof positive of “Park Hang-seo’s magic.”

But it wasn’t an easy road for Park. When he first arrived in Vietnam, he adjusted to his players’ schedule. Because of the heat, the coach got to the field by 5 a.m. for practice.

He became accustomed to Vietnam’s siesta culture and did not force his team to practice at this time. With his willingness to adapt, Park and his players built a strong sense of team chemistry.

“The players went above and beyond,” Park said after the final match. “I am entirely to blame for the team’s loss.”

After his statement, Vietnamese news agencies complimented the coach for his humbleness and charismatic leadership.

Some Vietnamese football fans have even said they would name their son Hang-seo.

“I flew to China on a regular plane,” said Park. “But my return was by charter flight. The Vietnamese government even said they would give me a badge of honor. I will do my best to fulfill the heightened expectations of the Vietnamese people.”

BY LAURA SONG, SONG JI-HOON [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]