One of four co-hosts for the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, Vietnam have made no secret of their intention to play a starring role on this, their debut on the continental stage.

They certainly proved themselves well capable of springing a surprise by finishing second in  December's King's Cup , an achievement that helped them soar 38 places to 134th position in  January's FIFA/ Coca-Cola world ranking table . They have also succeeded in continuing that winning form at the ASEAN Football Championship,  scoring an incredible nine times without reply against Laos  on Wednesday to book a semi-final spot.

The picture did not look so rosy when Vietnam made a poor start in the annual King's Cup against hosts Thailand, going down 2-1 in their opening game on 24 December. However, under the guidance of much-loved Austrian coach Alfred Riedl, they rallied effectively in the next round of matches, producing a stunning comeback against Kazakhstan in which young striker Le Cong Vinh sealed a thrilling 2-1 win with a last-minute header.

Next up, in the crunch match against Singapore, it was once again the impressive Cong Vinh who sealed a hard-fought win for the Vietnamese eight minutes from time after the two sides had been locked at 2-2.

Although Vietnam lost 3-1 in the final, again to the hosts, Thailand, Riedl's young men had already earned the respect of observers and rivals alike, with their well-organised defence coming in for particularly glowing praise. "The Vietnamese played very well in keeping us at bay," acknowledged the winning Thai coach Charnwit Pholcheewin. "Their defence proved hard to breach."

Riedl himself also found cause for optimism. "I am satisfied with the style of football we played," he said, "and these four games provide very good preparation for us," referring to forthcoming AFC Asian Cup. "I am particularly happy to see the team have been improving throughout the tournament and it is the experience we have gained and the improvements we have made that really count."

French influence
Football took root quickly across Vietnam when it was introduced by French traders at the beginning of 20th century, but the game understandably developed slowly in a nation all too often ravaged by war. The Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) was not founded, in fact, until 1962, becoming affiliated to FIFA two years later.

Yet, perhaps making up for that slow start, the past decade has witnessed development at a rapid rate in Vietnamese football. Finishing runners-up at the 1998 Tiger Cup provided an important boost to confidence, as did picking up the silver medal at the Southeastern Asian Games in 1999, and it was no accident that both these successes were achieved under the astute leadership of Riedl.

They also provided the perfect platform for the professionalism of football in the country and, sure enough,  the V-League  was established within two years. Fuelled by the passion of the country's football-supporting public, the 13-team division has succeeded in attracting huge attention from investors, sponsors and, most importantly of all, fans. Today, football in Vietnam is played by over 300,000 on a regular basis, with the game undoubtedly on track to become the country's undisputed number one sport.

Just as the smooth development of the V-league stands as a testament to the ambition and potential of both the VFF and its clubs, the recent success of the national team also came as a result of a long-term youth development scheme.

It is certainly encouraging, if not altogether surprising, to see a host of talented youngsters emerging in this fledgling footballing nation. This was evident from around 2004, at the beginning of their qualifying campaign for  2006 FIFA World Cup™ , when the youthful striking duo of Phan Van Tai Em and Phan Van Quyen both announced their arrivals with goals in a 4-0 opening victory over Maldives. Van Quyen had proved his scoring credentials a year earlier, in fact, with the only goal in a stunning 1-0 Asian Cup qualifying win over Korea Republic.

Now, with that pair having firmly established themselves as the jewels in Riedl's crown, it is the turn of 22-year-old Cong Vinh to raise a few eyebrows, thanks largely to the two vital goals he scored in Vietnam's King's Cup campaign. The diminutive Song Lam Nghe forward was also named the V-League's Most Valuable Player for the past season, beating his nearest rival, Dong Tam Long An, by 36 points.

His club coach, Dong Minh Xuong, believes that Cong Vinh's potential could prove boundless, but only if he knuckles down in training. "He is undoubtedly a player with good skills and technique," said Minh Xuong. "However, he can make even more progress if he combines more with team-mates and trains harder."