11th December, 2014 – As Toshiya Miura reclines in his seat on his flight back to Tokyo, he may well remember this as the date when it all went wrong. Yet it was an adventure that had started so brightly, with its days in the rising sun.
It was that past May when he was appointed as the manager of the Vietnamese national team. The passion of their supporters is not in question – it rarely is when it comes to Southeast Asia’s fervent fans – but on the pitch, though, the ‘Golden Stars’ have been anything but.
Truth be told, they haven’t shone brightly for a while. The last tournament they won was the AFF Suzuki Cup eight years ago. Since then, a number of semi-finals and bronze medals are not enough for Vietnam. FIFA’s rankings painted them as the regional leaders, but on the pitch there is nothing to show for it.
its often said that it’s the hope that kills you – A grouping with Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar in the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup brought some optimism, but instead they were sucker punched into the worst case scenario. Late goals against the Philippines and Thailand put paid to their own hopes, with their only point coming against Myanmar.
The Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) swept out the old, changing the coach and captain for the 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. The new set-up initially sparkled a improvement in form, with the Vietnamese destroying Brunei by seven unanswered goals. Another game against Laos brought five more goals; at the very least the strikers knew where the goal is. Yet the team still contrived to lose their other games, going home as the tournament top scorers before the business end even started. The VFF tore up the playbook again, fired coach Hoang Van Phuc and went foreign. Enter Miura, stage left.
Having never coached outside of his native Japan, Miura was regarded as something of a left-field appointment by some. Even the federation did not appear to have made an informed decision, relying instead on the wisdom of others, as Le Hung Dung, chairman of the VFF alluded to.
VFF did not choose Miura due to his CV,”We trusted him, as he was introduced by the Japan Football Association. He was not well-known, but it was not a problem.
The man himself did not know much about the country nor its surroundings. Neither was international football his forte, having spent more of his time working in the background with youths. It is the development of its youngsters that VFF had in mind – perhaps what was some Japanese steel to be woven with Vietnamese silk. Maybe, just maybe, they could finally have something to place in the trophy cabinet.
The new coach quickly instituted a more direct and physical style for the team and strong results followed. At the 2014 Asian Games in Korea, they marched unbeaten through their group games, scalping continental giants Iran along the way with a stunning 4-1 victory. A subsequent loss to the United Arab Emirates in the knockout stages was disappointing, but not shameful.
The Japanese coach was still feted when the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup began. This time, Vietnam made no mistakes as they powered through to the semi-finals, dispatching of the Philippines along the way with strength and style. Roy Moore of GMA had his own take on the Vietnamese set-up.
Japanese coach Toshiya Miura has done a very good job of blending his young players into the team and developing a high tempo few teams can match
One match before the final, they met Malayan Tigers in Malaysia. The hosts took the lead through a penalty, but their roar was silenced as Vo Huy Toan and Nguyen Quyet scored two breathtaking goals to demonstrate their combination of silk and steel.
Fans were-spell bound by the incisive football and dubbed Miura the ‘soccer sorcerer’. It made the Malaysian fans jealous and the Vietnamese supporters jubilant of such smooth flowing football, as an expectant nation awaits for the gold from afar.
Then, on 11th December 2014, when the sun started to set on Miura’s magic.
Malaysia won 4-2 in Hanoi, scoring all four goals in the first half. This was an average Malaysian team, a year away from a record 0-10 defeat against the United Arab Emirates. The Vietnamese, however, had no answer to their rapid counter attacks. Rarely have 40,000 people been so quickly silenced into submission by shock.
The abysmal performance provoked loud whispers of match-fixing, a spectre never far away in this region. A voice close to the team said it out loud. “The team’s defeat on the night was very suspicious,” lamented Le Hung Dung. “I will ask the police to investigate.” Nothing eventually came of it, which was even worse. They had lost purely out of ineptitude.
Now against the ropes, Miura had to bounce back in a difficult qualifying group for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, as well as the SEA Games of 2015 in Singapore. A roughshod defeat against Thailand in the former didn’t bat back criticism of his aggressive style of play, while a semi-final loss to Myanmar – a team Miura demolished 6-0 in his first match in charge – in the latter meant the beleaguered coach was on his last legs.
It’s funny, then, that the fountain of youth that is the 2016 AFC Under-23 Championships became his last chance saloon. If he had hoped to at least go out in a blaze of glory, his defenders did not read the script. They were not even on the same page in the first match against Jordan, Baha’ Faisal springing their offside trap to slot home a training ground goal.
Faisal helped himself to another before the end of the match, before Do Duy Manh sidefooted a consolation goal in the 87th minute. It was Jordan’s second goal in the 68th minute, though, that set tongues wagging. Omar Al Manasrah’s right-footed rocket was a wonder goal indeed, but Miura must have been asking why the opposition’s left back was given all the time in the world on the edge of their penalty area to curl one in.
If he did, it wasn’t answered properly in the second match. Barely two minutes were on the clock when Australian centre back James Donachie found room in their six-yard box to slam home the opener. Jamie Maclaren’s goal later in the match sealed their fate, and nailed the coffin shut on Vietnamese hopes.
Rock bottom, and with no chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, there was only for pride to be fought for in the final match. Perhaps it was this that drove the Golden Stars to take the lead against the United Arab Emirates. Some bright play on the left wing won them a penalty, and up steps Nguyen Cong Phuong. Obligatorily nicknamed the ‘Vietnamese Messi’, he at least lived up to it momentarily as he smashed them into the lead.
Unfortunately, the defender Pham Hoang Lam then did a good impression of Iain Dowie, scoring at the wrong end with a powerful header. That didn’t dampen their spirits though, with Nguyen Truon Ang’s fancy footwork put them ahead three minutes later.
Vietnam being 2-1 up with 20 minutes to go, the match should have been seen out in comfort, what with all the vaunted physical conditioning. Instead, it did not help to sustain their mental strength. Miura’s men capitulated under pressure, and ended up conceding two goals within four minutes.
The team arrived in Hanoi in a firestorm. The man brought in to ring the changes now had to dance to a different tune, with criticism raining in on the same tactics that made them such an irresistible force just a year earlier. Without a trophy to show for it, whatever goodwill earned from his first year in charge went up in smoke.
It doesn’t help that the local infrastructure is not equipped for the new, with sports federations treated as more as political favours rather than advancements of a cause. Allegations of bribery and corruption are also never that far away, making you wonder how serious promises of reform should be taken.
Miura may be bemused by losing his senior job due to failures in an under-age category. Many in Southeast Asia are conditioned to be proud of their teams, but those consistently disappointed in the present keeps a keen eye on the future. When the hope promised by such youth does not materialise, a scapegoat had to be found.
The fans are hungry for success, but wish for it to be achieved on their own terms. Perhaps blinded by myopic passion, theirs is a vision of Spanish-inspired tiki-taka success. Paul Little may have questioned its contemporary existence at the highest levels, but for a while Miura and his players kept it alive and well. They had their moment in the sun, but eventually the sun set on that, as his players were unable to execute his game plan effectively beyond an extended honeymoon period.
Within days, he was fired from the job, removed, according to the VFF official statement, because of the very same qualities he was brought in to instill.
After further discussion and analysis, we find the national and under-23 tactics adopted to be unsuitable for the size and physical condition of Vietnamese players.
As Toshiya Miura leans back and shuts his eyes, he may well have considered how he did things his own way, doing what he was brought it to do. A smile may form at the thought of how he had not really lost the job; rather, the goalposts shifted and it was taken away from him simply because he did it too well, too quickly.