Vietnam takes on the mighty USWNT in a historic game it certainly can’t win

Vietnam takes on the mighty USWNT in a historic game it certainly can’t win

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Vietnam’s arduous journey to its first World Cup has cut across everything from regional rivals to patriarchal norms. It started decades ago, but decades after the American War – because for years after reunification, the country officially banned women from playing soccer. So the journey officially began in 1997, with the women’s team in oversized men’s shirts and no financial backing. Over the quarter-century that followed, it was a wild ride.

It passed through Nakhon Sawan, in Thailand, and Adelaide, in Australia, and Chengdu, in China. It stretched to Amman, Jordan and Pune, India. He passed through a nation, Vietnam, that loves football but had no means to support it. Instead, individual players fed it with passion – and often with day jobs, perhaps selling coconuts or bread to subsidize their pursuit of the sport.

They often rose from poverty to lead the women’s team to Asian Cups and the brink of World Cup qualifying. They fell short in 2015. But this past winter, they conquered Thailand and Taiwan and entered the expanded 32-team field. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, they received a heroin’s welcome at the presidential palace. The final stages of the trip took them on a double-decker bus through the central streets and to ceremonies with the Vietnamese president and prime minister.

And it will end Saturday in Auckland at Eden Park with a game that Vietnam certainly cannot win.

“We will have very suitable tactics to be able to minimize the goals conceded, and we can minimize the injuries,” said coach Mai Duc Chung this Friday through a translator. “And if we manage to score a goal, that would be great!”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 18: Captain Huynh Nhu during a Vietnam training session at Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai on July 18, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Captain Huynh Nhu during a Vietnam training session at Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai on July 18, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

They will face the United States (Friday at 9 pm ET, Fox), the mighty US women’s team, the back-to-back World Cup champions who have spent the better part of three decades at the top of their sport. “Now we are facing a very big and high mountain,” said Mai. The USWNT is a -50,000 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, of course, that’s where the USWNT 2023 World Cup opening speech began.

“Are you going to crush us like Thailand did four years ago?” a Vietnam News Agency reporter asked US coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday.

It actually started last month. At the pre-tournament USWNT media day in Los Angeles, a journalist asked a question about that Thailand game and everything that followed – the ridiculous debates over whether the USWNT should have raised the score and the polarizing arguments about their celebrations.

Alex Morgan didn’t like the question very much. Instead, she questioned its premise.

“Looking at this tournament and the games we’re going to play, you can’t compare our game against Thailand to the next games,” said Morgan. “We have incredible respect for Vietnam.”

She cited a data point that suggested she was right. In a pre-tournament friendly, Vietnam held their ground against Germany, a perennial contender. Lost 2-1 just 2-1.

Other data points, however, were a little more ominous. The last Vietnamese friendly before the tournament, here in New Zealand last week, ended 9-0 to Spain. Even in the Asian Cup, Vietnam’s route to qualification, it failed to win any of its first four matches. Its players are almost all semi-professionals. Its star, Huynh Nhu, the first Vietnamese woman to play professionally abroad, reportedly earns around $1,600 a month in the Portuguese second division – or about 1/15th of what a single USWNT player earns for winning a single World Cup qualifying game.

And while American players grew up on lavish fields with elaborate equipment, “when I started playing football, it wasn’t a ball, it was a coconut,” Nhu said on Friday. “Or a papaya.”

“But now I’m playing on the biggest stage in the world,” she said at a news conference filled with smiles. “It’s like a fairy tale to me.”

She and her teammates have come a long way to this stage. “Our life in the past was very, very difficult,” Mai said. “We never had the chance to play with the world’s leading team.” Now that they do, “we have a lot to learn,” he said. “We are here to learn from all the teams in the world.”

They are also here with a “spirit,” Nhu said.

They are beaming, strolling through Eden Park, posing for stunning photos, but “we don’t just come here for tourism,” clarified Mai. “We are here to play.”

American players and coaches expect them to be “organized” and tenacious. A 6-0 defeat is possible, if not likely, but a 13-0 repeat seems unlikely. “We witnessed the [Thailand] fiasco,” Nhu told The New York Times recently. “Thailand suffered such a loss that they kind of fell behind and their fighting spirit is not there anymore. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will continue to fight.”

“Us [will] try our best,” Mai said on Friday.

They will play with “pride” and “nothing to lose”.

But they think they can to win?

The question on Friday drew laughs from the Vietnamese media and a smile from Mai.

“I mean, if we can win, that’s wonderful,” he said. “We do not refuse it.”

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