After just under five and a half years in charge, Park Hang-seo has stepped down from his role as Vietnam head coach following a period of unprecedented success for the Golden Star Warriors, both at senior and U-23 levels.
The Korean tactician has gained legendary status in the Southeast Asian country after bringing through a ‘Golden Generation’ of talent that excelled both at the regional and continental levels and took Vietnam to new heights in the football world.
While last week’s 1-0 defeat to Thailand in the second leg of the 2022 AFF Cup final ultimately meant Park could not go out on a high following a 3-2 aggregate loss, he departs with his head held high after a remarkable spell of a side he took charge of in September 2017.
The-AFC.com looks back at his time at the helm.
A Golden Generation Rise
In the years leading up to the 2018 AFC U23 Asian Cup™ in China PR, there had been talk that something special was happening in Vietnam and, with Park in charge of the Vietnamese side for his first major tournament, the young Golden Star Warriors delivered and then some.
Boasting the likes of Nguyen Cong Phuong, Luong Xuan Truong and the country’s hottest prospect, Nguyen Quang Hai, Vietnam advanced to the quarter-finals from a group comprising Korea Republic, Australia and Syria, with Quang Hai’s winner against the Australians ultimately decisive.
A 3-3 draw and subsequent penalty shootout victory against an Iraqi side that had excelled at youth level came next, before Quang Hai turned on the style against Qatar. Twice Vietnam fell behind and twice the diminutive playmaker produced wonderful equalisers as another game went to penalties. Cruelly, Quang Hai missed, but his teammates spared his blushes as Vietnam advanced.
In his first tournament at the helm, Park had guided the Golden Star Warriors to their first final of an AFC competition, while back in Vietnam, tens of thousands of supporters had taken to the streets to celebrate the achievement.
Conditions for the final couldn’t have been harsher with heavy snow covering the pitch at Changzhou Olympic Sports Centre. Many of Vietnam’s players had never seen snow before but, after falling behind to Uzbekistan, Quang Hai produced a moment that will live long in the memory when he curled home a delightful free-kick that became known as the “Rainbow in the Snow”.
The tournament would end in heartbreak, however, as Andrey Sidorov struck the winning goal in the last minute of extra-time to claim the title for the Central Asians. A Golden Generation, though, had been born.
Later that year, with many of the U23 squad now part of the senior set-up, Vietnam entered the AFF Cup looking to reclaim a title they won for the first and only time a decade earlier.
Back then it had been Le Cong Vinh who was the national treasure, now it was undoubtedly Quang Hai. And it was he who curled home another trademark free-kick in an opening-day win over Laos. Further wins against Malaysia and Cambodia followed as Vietnam booked their ticket to the semi-finals.
The Golden Star Warriors had not appeared in the final since winning the 2008 title but a 4-2 aggregate win over the Philippines saw them advance with minimal fuss. Quang Hai, Cong Phuong and Phan Van Duc – three players who had been part of the U23 squad in China – were among the scorers.
And Park’s status in Vietnam was further enhanced when, following a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the final against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Nguyen Anh Duc scored the only goal of the second leg in Hanoi after being teed up by a superb Quang Hai cross to send the crowd at the My Dinh National Stadium into raptures.
The win meant the Korean tactician had become only the second man – following Portugal’s Henrique Calisto – to steer Vietnam to the title as, once again, the masses took to the streets across the country to rejoice.
Hot on the heels of the 2018 AFF Cup came the 2019 AFC Asian Cup™ in the United Arab Emirates, with Vietnam appearing in the competition for the first time since co-hosting the tournament in 2007 but, this time, qualifying without being granted automatic passage.
Drawn in a tough group alongside Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Yemen, Vietnam ran the Iraqis close before losing 3-2 following a last-minute winner and then were beaten 2-0 by the Iranians. But yet another expertly taken Quang Hai free-kick and a penalty from Que Ngoc Hai sealed a 2-0 win over Yemen and a place in the knockout rounds.
A goal down against Jordan in the last 16, Cong Phuong leveled early in the second half and, with no further goals, Park’s side were again facing a penalty shootout. And their steely resolve was once more on display as goalkeeper Dang Van Lam saved Sameer Saleh’s effort and defender Bui Tien Dung netted the winning spot-kick to secure a quarter-final date with Japan.
Having masterminded Vietnam’s first-ever win in an AFC Asian Cup knockout round game, next up for Park was a side regarded as one of the best on the continent. His Golden Star Warriors put on a display that showed just how much they had progressed in recent times as they ran the Samurai Blue close, but in the end a second-half Ritsu Doan penalty saw the Japanese through.
New Ground, Famous Victory
Following a COVID-19-interrupted AFC Asian Qualifiers – Road to Qatar™ campaign, another first was around the corner. Park steered Vietnam into the final round for the first time to mean the Golden Star Warriors would be among Asia’s top 12 teams battling it out for a place at the global showpiece.
It was new territory for the Southeast Asians, but they got off to the perfect start when Quang Hai stunned Saudi Arabia to give them an early lead in Riyadh in their opening game. Do Duy Manh’s red card for two bookings, however, meant it was an uphill battle as they eventually fell to a 3-1 loss.
Narrow defeats to Australia and China followed – the latter 3-2 after conceding a 95th-minute winner from Wu Lei – before another four losses saw Vietnam propping up the standings and still seeking their first point. While the step up in level may have been tough, many of their games had been close contests. And their luck was about to turn.
At home to neighbours China, Ho Tan Tai and Nguyen Tien Linh put them two up inside 20 minutes at the My Dinh National Stadium before Van Duc made sure of the three points by making it three inside the final 15 minutes. The Chinese grabbed a late consolation as the game finished 3-1 as Vietnam beat China for the first time ever.
Their penultimate game was a 1-0 loss against Oman but they rounded off their campaign with a hugely impressive 1-1 draw away to Japan, with Nguyen Thanh Binh opening the scoring at Saitama Stadium.
The Swan Song
Vietnam were unable to defend their AFF Cup title at the 2020 edition (held in late 2021), exiting at the semi-finals to eventual champions Thailand and, ahead of the 2022 competition, Park had announced it would be his last time in charge of a side he had brought so far.
Hopes were high that the 65-year-old could depart after reclaiming the trophy he won in 2018 and the early signs were positive. Vietnam breezed through the group stage with three wins and a draw and didn’t concede a single goal.
Then, following a scoreless draw against Indonesia in the first leg of the semi-finals, a Tien Linh brace – his fourth and fifth goals of the campaign – saw them book a rematch against Thailand in the final as they also made it six matches without conceding.
Park’s final game at the My Dinh National Stadium was thrilling. Tien Linh’s header opened the scoring before Thailand turned the game on its head by netting twice after the restart. However, the Korean ensured his last game in Hanoi would not end in defeat as his 85th-minute substitute, Vu Van Thanh, rifled home an equaliser three minutes after being introduced to secure a 2-2 draw.
But a glorious finale for his reign was not to be, as Theerathon Bunmathan stole the headlines by scoring the only goal of the game in the return meeting in Bangkok to seal a 3-2 aggregate win that denied Vietnam a third – and Park a second AFF Cup title.
Park now steps down after taking the Vietnam team and his passionate fans on a journey like no other and one that ensures he will forever be regarded as a legend in the Southeast Asian nation.