Amidst the highs and lows of 2021 overshadowed by the Covid pandemic, the scale tipped towards the former as Vietnamese athletes fought to make a mark on the world scene.
1. World Cup qualifiers – an amazing run
Tran Minh Vuong holds the ball as he and his teammates celebrate his goal in a World Cup qualifier game against the UAE, June 15, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa
Continuing their amazing run in the qualifying games two years ago, Vietnam entered the last three games of group G with top position in the second World Cup qualifying round. The team got off to a great start with a crushing 4-0 victory over Indonesia.
The second game with Malaysia was a much closer affair. Vietnam got ahead with an opener but Malaysia found the equalizer from a penalty. Eventually, the Golden Dragons scored the winning goal from a penalty to make it 2-1 and claimed another three points to stay atop group G.
In the last game in June, Vietnam faced a stronger UAE to compete for the first position. UAE were 3-0 up after 50 minutes, but Vietnam didn’t give up and fought back hard with two goals. UAE won 3-2 and topped the group, directly qualifying for the third round.
Vietnam advanced as one of the five best second-placed teams in the second round. This was a historic feat, marking the nation’s very first entry into the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.
2. An Olympian let down
Vietnam sent a 43-member delegation to the Olympics this year but returned empty-handed. In weightlifting, Thach Kim Tuan and Hoang Thi Duyen were predicted to win medals with their form, but they underperformed. The others also didn’t meet their personal targets, failing to make it past the first round of the event, including veteran shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh, who was unable to defend his Olympic gold medal in 2016.
Only Quach Thi Lan was able to achieve her goal. She became the first Vietnamese runner to advance to an Olympics semifinal.
Hoang Thi Duyen fails to lift 119 kg in Olympic weightlifting on July 27, 2021. Photo by Reuters
3. Futsal accomplishment
The Vietnam national futsal team reached new highs in 2021. In May, they bested Lebanon in the playoffs and claimed the ticket to the Futsal World Cup in Lithuania. This is the second time that the Vietnamese futsal team was qualifying for the World Cup, the debut happening in 2016.
When the main event started in September, Vietnam had a rough start in the group stage, losing 1-9 to world number two Brazil. In the second game, the team fought hard to win 3-2 against Panama.
Vietnam’s main target in the third game against Czech Republic was not to lose. A win or a draw would get them straight to the next round as one of the best third-placed teams and a loss meant elimination. Vietnam achieved what they wanted with a 1-1 draw that sent them into the round of 16.
The star of the team was goalkeeper Ho Van Y, who made wonderful saves game after game to get Vietnam past the group stage.
The squad of Vietnam national futsal team for Futsal World Cup Lithuania 2021. Photo by Vietnam Football Federation
In the next round, the team faced world number four Russia, who had beaten them 7-0 in Futsal World Cup 2016. This time, Vietnam put up a much better show, losing 2-3 in a game that they played really well and created many difficulties for Russia, concluding their journey.
4. First Vietnamese world boxing champion
Because of the pandemic, the WBO women’s mini-flyweight belt fight between Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi and Japanese boxer Etsuko Tada was postponed twice before the bout took place in October.
Nhi had entered the match with just four professional fights, while Tada was the undisputed number one mini-flyweight boxer in Japan and the world. The 41-year-old had 26 fights under her belt, of which she’d won 20, drawn three and lost three.
In the ninth round, Nhi had a cut above her eye that was bleeding but kept her composure and stayed on target to edge out Tada 96-94 after 10 rounds.
Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi celebrates after winning the WBO world belt on October 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nghia Phu
The victory made Nhi the first-ever Vietnamese boxer to win a world belt. It’s also the first professional title for a boxer from Vietnam.
“This is a meaningful victory, to become the first female boxer in Vietnam to win a WBO world belt. I didn’t expect that I’d come this far. I have realized my dream after putting all of my passion and strength into this fight as a Vietnamese citizen. This is a victory for the Vietnamese martial arts scene,” Nhi, 25, said after the fight.
5. Heavy lifting
Weightlifter Le Van Cong shone brightly on the international stage this year. In the men’s 49 kg weightlifting contest of the Tokyo Paralympics in August, he lifted 173 kg, tying with Omar Qarada of Jordan. Literally tipping the scales Cong took silver and his opponent the gold. That was also Vietnam’s only medal in the Paralympics this year.
Le Van Cong with his silver medal at Tokyo Paralympics on August 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Sports Delegation
Three months later, Cong encountered Qarada again, this time at the World Para Powerlifiting Championships 2021. In the men’s 49 events, Cong pulled off 170 kg while Qarada managed 174 to win gold. But with the silver medal, Quan has qualified for the Paris Paralympics 2024.
6. Tennis ace adds a brace
Ly Hoang Nam, Vietnam’s number one tennis player, had a hectic schedule from September to November. In September, he helped the national team get past the Davis Cup Group III Asia-Oceania with victories over Pacific Ocean and Malaysia, and qualified for the World Group II playoffs that will take place in March next year.
Nam then went to Egypt with the target of improving his world ranking. He competed weekly in multiple M15 Sharm El Sheikh tournaments held by the International Tennis Federation. After a few failures, Nam finally claimed a M15 title on November 1.
Ly Hoang Nam celebrates after winning the M15 Cancun title in Mexico on November 29, 2021. Photo by Vietnam Tennis Federation
A month later, the 24-year-old claimed the M15 Cancun title in Mexico. Despite having to play the semifinal and final on the same day, Nam cruised to the title without losing a set. With two M15 titles, Nam now has five singles’ international titles. He also improved his world ranking from 738th to 519th.
7. Postponed, canceled
In 2021, the fourth Covid-19 wave in Vietnam hit the country hard, delaying or canceling many activities including sports events.
The SEA Games 31 was supposed to be hosted in Vietnam from November 21 to December 2 this year, but due to the complicated pandemic situation in the country, it was moved to May 2022.
In August, the national football championship V. League was canceled. The event had already been postponed since May and the decision to cancel it was made after the pandemic showed no sign of slowing down. With neither champion nor relegation this season, the league will restart next year.
Medical staff sanitize the court of VBA 2021 in Nha Trang. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Basketball Association
A few days after V. League was canceled, the national basketball league VBA followed suit. The championship had to be canceled after it was held in the central province of Khanh Hoa for more than 70 days with games played behind closed doors. The prolonged tournament also caused contracts with coaches, players and referees to expire.
8. Injuries haunt Vietnam football
Injuries have been a major setback for Vietnamese football in 2021, especially with the national team having to compete at two important tournaments: World Cup qualifiers and AFF Cup.
It started with a horrible injury to key midfielder Do Hung Dung, whose shin was fractured after a hard tackle in a V. League game in March. He was out for eight months and has only returned to training in November.
Do Hung Dung leaves the field on a stretcher in the V. League game between Hanoi FC and HCMC FC on March 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa
Another notable case was that of left-back Doan Van Hau. After returning from knee surgery last year, Hau was used in three games of the World Cup qualifiers second round in June, but his injury resurfaced. According to his club Hanoi FC, his injuries weren’t diagnosed accurately in the beginning, leading to further damage to his right leg. Hau went under surgery for the second time in South Korea and it will take him until next year to return.
Several other key players of the national team were hit with minor injuries but they happened to occur when Vietnam were playing the final round of World Cup qualifiers. Injuries were a factor in Vietnam losing all six matches in the final round of the qualifiers so far.
9. AFF Cup exit
Vietnam entered the tournament as defending champions, but with many key players lost to injuries. The Golden Dragons had a great start in the group stage with victories over Laos and Malaysia. Next, they drew goalless against an extremely defensive Indonesia. In the last game of group B, despite netting four against Cambodia, they could only finish second overall with 10 points, the same as Indonesia but scoring fewer goals.
Nguyen Tien Linh holds his head in rue after missing a chance in the second leg of AFF Cup semifinals between Vietnam and Thailand on December 26, 2021. Photo by Leo Shengwei
The second place in group B matched them up with group A leader Thailand in the semifinals. The first leg was a disaster for Vietnam, as they made mistakes, suffered from dubious refereeing and were quite unlucky. The team lost 0-2 and needed at least a two-goal difference in the second leg to advance. Despite playing much better in the second leg, they couldn’t score against a resilient Thailand. The match ended 0-0 and Vietnam bowed out of the tournament.
Coach Park Hang-seo and the players will have to wait until next year for a chance to reclaim the title.
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