Park is right man for Vietnam – for now

After the appointment of Park Hang-seo as new Vietnam boss, Fox Sport Asia’s John Duerden takes a look at whether he is the right man for the job.

Over the years, a number of Southeast Asian nations have appointed coaches from Japan and South Korea.

Back home in Seoul and Tokyo, these departures are little noticed. But that changed this week as Park Hang-seo received the call from Vietnam’s national team. The South Korean has been a prominent figure in the country’s football scene for pretty much all of the 21st century.

On paper, it seems to be a good appointment as Vietnam look to move to the next level in the region and the continent. For one, the 58 year-old has plenty of experience.

He was a member of Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup and helped the new man get to grips with the job and the players during the run to the semi-finals. He even took control of the team for a game after Hiddink returned to Europe.

In 2005, he became the first coach in the history of new K-League team Gyeongnam. He performed well with the southern team and in the second season, took them to fourth and the championship play-off series.

He managed to get the best out of Brazilian striker Cabore and produced an entertaining side that was a little unlucky to see their title hopes ended by Pohang Steelers after a penalty shootout. I attended that game on a cold evening in the city of Changwon with fans eating pizza and shouting his name after the match.

It was his last in charge of the club and he left as Cabore was sold to FC Tokyo, despite his protestations. He then moved from the south east of the country to the far south west and turned up at Jeonnam Dragons, the traditional Korean mid-table team that has an occasional tilt at the cup.

He took the Gwangyang side to the top six in 2009 and more play-offs. The team reflected Park’s stubborn personality and defeated FC Seoul before exiting in the semi-finals.

Park ended up at Sangju Sangmu, Korea’s military team. There were promotions and relegations but not too much should be read into any of that. Sangju change most of their roster every year as players get conscripted and then are released back to their clubs.

Now, he is in Vietnam. The Golden Stars have talent and technique running throughout the squad. They have established themselves as the second strongest nation in Southeast Asia. Thailand are obviously out in front, having won the last two AFF Suzuki Cups, reaching the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup and sending club teams to the knockout stage of the Asian Champions League. Vietnam are some way behind but have the talent to catch up.

There has been a feeling in the country’s football authorities that despite the technique and talent that exists, the national team is not ruthless or pragmatic enough. They may play some very pretty football but don’t stick the ball between the sticks as much as they should and need to be a little harder to beat.

Park may be the pragmatic boss that the team needs. He, like many Korean coaches, likes a well-organised team that can counter-attack at speed. In his club career, this often worked well but then he was always in charge of the league’s smaller sides. He was always in a situation where fans, players and bosses were happy to be a little conservative when facing other teams. When facing Seoul, Suwon, Pohang or Jeonbuk, there was little pressure to get on the front foot.

That will be a challenge for Park. He has to find a balance between keeping the DNA of a team that is better going forward and is very comfortable on the ball, while making it harder to beat when playing stronger teams in Asia. Yet in ASEAN, he will be in a slightly unfamiliar position of being favourite in most games.

In Asia, and the 2019 Asian Cup, assuming Vietnam qualify as they should, his pragmatic personality may come in useful, although he has been accused of tactical inflexibility. He is a disciplinarian and demands total commitment from players and is fiercely loyal to those who work hard (once tearing into this writer for questioning one of his players).

Park never got a big job in the K-League, he was never quite seen as the man to take one of the big boys forward. That is the issue at Vietnam. A big team in Southeast Asia, but not yet in Asia. He has what it takes to make the team into something a little smarter and harder to beat, but in the end, he may not be the one to unlock their full potential.

In order to reach the next level though, Park Hang-seo may be a smart appointment. He is not going to take Vietnam to the top of Asian football but in the short to medium term, can take them a little closer. Less Mr.Right than Mr Right Now.

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