Le Cong Vinh hard to replace for Vietnam in Asian Cup qualifying
For the past decade, imagining the Vietnam national team without Le Cong Vinh was like facing a day in the country without eating pho, the delicious and ubiquitous national dish. You knew it would happen sooner or later, but it was best not to think about it.
LV9 was the captain, the star striker and talisman all rolled into one. And then he said before the start of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup that it would be his last tournament wearing the famous red shirt.
Fans hoped two things: one that he would lead the team to success in Southeast Asia as he did in 2008, heading home a 94th-minute goal in the final to send millions of compatriots crazy.
The second was that he would change his mind.
Neither has come to pass. The 31-year-old was single-minded in his search for goals, and seems to be just as resolute off it. The Golden Stars have started the final round of qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, a tournament that there is a real chance of appearing in, and the striker is not around. On Tuesday, they will play Group C leaders Jordan in Ho Chi Minh.
In their opening quarlifier in March, Vietnam could have done with their former hero as they drew 1-1 against Afghanistan in the neutral venue of Dushanbe. That was not a bad result, but it could have been better with a greater cutting edge, something that was obvious in the preceding friendly with Chinese Taipei. Vietnam dominated, but could only draw 1-1.
That is what Le Cong Vinh provided. With over 50 goals in his 83 appearances, he was often in the right place at the right time with the right skills to get the job done. With him, Vietnam won games they should have drawn, and drew games they should have lost.
There are plenty who feel that the forward has what it takes to have stayed, and played until the 2019 Asian Cup when he will only be 34. At the very least, he would have provided the experience and leadership that the young team need.
There is talent and ability in abundance, but are Vietnam the kind of team capable of getting a good result while playing badly? It is hard to say.
But there is no use crying over spilled pho. There needs to be a successor, but at the moment, there are no standout candidates.
At the back, and in midfield, the Vietnamese team are as blessed as those who live in one of Asia's most successful football nations. There is a growing number of young players coming through the country's youth system, most notably the HAGL academy.
The talent was obvious at the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. Central defender Que Ngoc Hai and left-back Vu Van Thanh are both in their early 20s, but were impressive. Further up the pitch, Nguyen Trong Hoang, and the younger Luong Xuan Truong, stood out.
Technically gifted, tidy and intelligent, Vietnamese football currently has these players in abundance, and they are only going to get better. In attack, however, options are thinner on the ground.
Nguyen Cong Phuong, Nguyen Van Toan and Ho Tuan Tai have been considered. But none of the three, talented though they undoubtedly are, can be seen as real strikers.
Against Afghanistan, Nguyen van Quyet got the nod. The 25-year-old Hanoi hit man is an out-and-out No. 9 and a fine one. He is not, however, as prolific as Le Cong Vinh, and does not lead the line with the same authority as the former skipper. There is another option, and it is an intriguing one. There is Hoang Vu Samson. The striker has scored more goals than anyone in the V-League's history, and is set to top the goal scoring charts in 2017 too.
He has yet to get a call-up. The reason is that he was born in Nigeria. The 28-year-old received his Vietnamese citizenship in 2013, and has regularly talked of his desire to represent his new country.
Yet the Vietnamese Football Federation (VFF) has refused to consider the Hanoi forward. There have been Brazilian-born stars given call-ups in the past, but these were usually in unofficial friendlies against the likes of Brazil's Olympic team or European clubs. Calling a foreign-born forward would, in the eyes of some, compromise the Vietnamese character of the national team.
There are many fans who believe that Samson should get the chance because it would go a long way to solving the striking issues with the Golden Stars.
The absence of CV9 leaves Vietnam with a lack of experience and leadership -- qualities that will be replaced in time -- but if the team are to achieve their potential in the next two or three years, his goals needs to be urgently replaced.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.