Rising star brightens Vietnam
Vietnamese striker Le Cong Vinh became an instant national hero last month when his winning goal in the dying seconds of the Suzuki Cup final handed the South-East Asians their first major international silverware.
The only time Vietnam had made an impact in the competition, previously known as the Tiger Cup, was in 1998 when goals from the legendary Le Huynh Duc steered the side to the final only to narrowly fail at the final hurdle against Singapore.
The many adoring fans of the national team would have to wait another decade for the much anticipated breakthrough. Young attacking sensation Cong Vinh, already being heralded as the player to take Huynh Duc's mantle, lived up to all expectations by scoring in each match of the two-legged final against Thailand to deliver Vietnam the unprecedented success.
More than a heir
Comparisons between Huynh Duc, arguably the best player the nation has produced, and the 23-year-old Cong Vinh were inevitable though the ambitious striking prodigy moulds himself on a former FIFA World Player of the Year. "My idol is Luis Figo and he is the type of player I am dreaming to be," Cong Vinh revealed to FIFA.com. "I belong to the pragmatic sort and I advocate the no-nonsense style like Figo."
A bold dreamer he may be, but Cong Vinh has proved he is more than an heir to Huynh Duc, scoring 24 goals in only 20 international appearances for Vietnam, including a famous winner against United Arab Emirates which paved their way to the last eight in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
Cong Vinh though was not in prolific form going into the Suzuki Cup and nor it seems were Vietnam, losing their opening match 2-0 to tournament favorites Thailand.
With their top striker struggling to find his flair, Vietnam only finished second in their group behind Thailand to progress to the last four, where they needed an extra ounce of luck to eliminate two-time champions Singapore.
Cong Vinh's moderate performances cast shadows over the team's prospects in the final but Portuguese head coach Henrique Calisto showed unwavering belief in his talents. "There is no doubt as to his quality as a terrific striker," said Calisto. "He is going through a rough patch but I think that if he can score that one goal, then it will make all the difference."
A night to remember
Calisto's faith in Cong Vinh paid off with the goal drought broken in the first leg of the final in the intimidating environs of the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok on Christmas Eve. Cong Vinh firstly set up Nguyen Vu Phong for the opener on 42 minutes before he himself was on target two minutes later to seemingly put the game beyond doubt. Ronnachai Rangsiyo pulled one back for the hosts with a quarter of an hour remaining to set up an exciting finale but there were to be no further goals on the night.
The 2-1 opening win, however, didn't mean that Vietnam would have an easy game in the return match. Four days later on home soil at Hanoi, Vietnam were one goal down after only 21 minutes, with Teerasil Dangda levelling for the visitors at 2-2 on aggregate.
The hosts were cheered on throughout by a boisterous crowd of 40,000 at Hanoi's My Dinh Stadium but Peter Reid's Thailand defended gallantly. With the two sides deadlocked and extra time looming, Cong Vinh suddenly struck, coolly glancing a header into the net heading Vietnam to a hard-fought and dramatic victory.
"This is the most memorable goal I have scored in my entire career," enthused an elated Cong Vinh after the match. "We worked hard and we are worthily awarded for our efforts."
The most crucial goal of Cong Vinh's young career not only sent Vietnam into party mode, but undoubtedly the tournament victory will help galvanise the nation for future football success.