- Vietnam finished as Asia's best movers in December
- They leapfrogged Philippines to top spot in South-east Asia
- Ascendance came on the back of AFC Asian Cup qualification
As usual, the end of the past year was relatively quiet on planet football, with little change happening among the top teams in December's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking. There were, however, ups and downs in South-east Asia, with Vietnam's giant move up the global ladder the most notable. Under the guidance of Korean coach Park Hangseo, the Golden Dragons surged 13 places to 112 and emerged as Asia’s best movers after finishing the year on a high.
The double-digit climb not only marked their best position since 2012, but also saw them reach the summit in South-east Asia, dislodging Philippines as the top-ranked side in the region. By doing so, the Vietnamese rounded off a memorable year during which they continued their upward trajectory by rising 24 places in the world pecking order.
Asian Cup return
The driving force behind their significant upwards move was their successful qualifying campaign for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. They have so far maintained an undefeated record after five games, results which have sealed their place among the top two in their qualifying group, and with it, a berth in the continental finals.
Vietnam improved game after game in qualifying, despite getting off to a slow start. They came away with a point in Afghanistan before sharing the spoils again in a goalless draw with Jordan at home. However, they found their feet in their next outing against Cambodia by registering a 2-1 victory before a 5-0 drubbing of the same side put them on the verge of qualification.
The deciding match came on 14 November, when they entertained Afghanistan. With both sides facing must-win scenarios, the visitors took the game to the Vietnamese and carved out far more chances. The hosts, however, defended gallantly to keep Afghanistan at bay, as they secured the point that sealed their fourth Asian Cup appearance.
"We did not win the game, but one point is enough to go to the Asian Cup," Park said after the draw with Afghanistan. "We did not play well today, but our players tried their best. We did not have enough time to show our ability. But everything will be better when we have more time working together."
*Changing of the guard *
Even more impressive was the fact that Vietnam achieved qualification success with a transitional side. The changing of the guard began two years ago with a series of veterans, including the legendary Le Cong Vinh, making way for younger talent. Inheriting the captain's armband from Le was Nguyen Van Quyet, who is currently the team's top scorer in Asian Cup qualifying with two goals.
No1 goalkeeper Nguyen Tuan Mạnh put in a pair of brilliant displays against Afghanistan, while the experienced Dinh Thanh Trung was the man driving the midfield, alongside emerging star Luong Xuan Truong, who plies his trade with K League club Gangwon FC in Korea Republic.
With half of the team under 23 years of age, Park has a promising squad at his disposal. It includes young goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung, defender Tran Dinh Trong, midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai, and striker Ha Duc Chinh, all of whom featured for their country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
Having had their international baptism at youth level, the quartet graduated to the senior squad, with which they hope to make further progress. Blessed with such a young crop of talent, Vietnam should be well capable of making further gains in the FIFA World Ranking in the future.