Vietnam need to win AFF Suzuki Cup, modernise V.League in 2018
The nation Vietnam is at an important point in its football journey as it seeks to fulfil its vast potential.
At youth level, the Vietnamese national team are enjoying a golden period by achieving results that were unheard of a few years ago.
However, it is important to capitalise on this success. The nation of nearly 100 million people loves football and there is very little competition for media coverage or potential sponsorship.
Some great work is being done by the Vietnamese Football Federation (VFF) at youth level, with quality coaching and team preparation. But how much better could it be?
Here are five wishes for Vietnam football in 2018.
1. AFF Cup success for the new national coach
Many people were surprised when South Korean Park Hang-Seo was appointed as head of the national team after an array of talented local and foreign coaches had been linked with the job.
The VFF announced a series of selection criteria, which included "prepared to work for small salary". Let's hope this financial factor was not a decisive one as it will turn out to be a false economy.
Media outlets have described Song -- he was an assistant to Guus Hiddink at the 2002 World Cup -- as a disciplinarian and someone who likes to get players fit. These may be features that administrators like to hear, but it's 2018 and players are different now.
The AFF Suzuki Cup in November will be the big test for Park as Vietnam now rightly believe that they should be challenging Thailand to win this regional title.
2. Modernisation of the V.League
The V.League consists of 14 teams, of which 13 are "state owned". This has almost led to a state of inertia as many clubs are run like offices and have not evolved administratively with basic issues, such as not responding to emails or phone calls or introducing marketing strategies.
Clubs do not see their teams as a "brand" and do very little to promote them or the players. Sadly, as VFF figures show, attendances are on a downward slide with some teams attracting fewer than 1,000 spectators.
Scheduling issues come into this. For example, starting a midweek game in rush hour is less than ideal. In addition, playing games in the wet season in the south is not conducive to attractive football.
There also has to be a more outward look. Most promotional material is in Vietnamese language, but there also has to be more coverage of the Vietnamese game in English.
TV coverage should also be reviewed, with improvements to camera work and commentary much needed to give the product a more professional look.
Finally, the league must adapt to social media demands, improve stadium access (and cleanliness) and exploit the potential of merchandising.
A trip to Buriram United in Thailand or Johor Darul Ta'zim in Malaysia will show the benefits of taking a more modern and professional approach.
3. Better pitches
This would seem an easy wish to fulfil, but when watching the V.League, the pitches are often bumpy, with unevenly cut grass, and you can see the problems this causes.
Fans are now fed a TV diet from Europe where the pitches are often like snooker tables. The Vietnamese fans are voting with their feet, and you can see beer gardens full for Premier League matches and empty stadiums for the V.League.
At junior level, there is a scarcity of pitches and those that are available are overused. The VFF complex is wonderful and they have done everything right there, but it is a fascinating sight at about 5pm when hundreds of people play on the streets outside the stadium with bricks for goals.
Significant government investment in recreational pitches for the growing youth population would be a huge step in the right direction.
4. Elimination of corruption
There is still a perception of corruption in Vietnamese football, whether this be match fixing or the signing of foreign players with kickbacks to management.
The VFF have clamped down and do give harsh penalties to proven match fixers, while jail sentences have been handed out to convicted offenders.
However, it is often the players who are penalised, while the root of the problem remains as the instigators who benefit most from match fixing go unpunished.
Many of the issues lie with gambling, and the huge sums of money that can be won by manipulating the outcome of a game. As in most Asian countries, gambling remains an illegal, underground business but it continues to thrive, giving the VFF an ongoing battle to counter its impact.
Is it time to consider the legalisation of state-run gambling to help bring it under control and plough some of its profits into grassroots football?
5. Overseas success
In 2017, Luong Xuan Truong was the only Vietnamese player at a top league outside Vietnam.
The 22-year-old spent the season on loan at Gangwon FC in South Korea, and Vietnamese football, like most Southeast Asian nations, needs a player to make it big abroad.
Initially, this may be in Asia, possible in the Japanese or Korean leagues but eventually it would be great to see a Vietnamese player succeed in Europe.
When players like Shinji Okazaki, Son Heung-Min and Aaron Mooy "make it" in Europe, the whole game benefits in Japan, South Korea and Australia.
The usual barriers to playing abroad still apply, such as language, culture and food. But it's time for players to grow up and show that they can be top professionals and travel abroad to a better league. The ability is certainly there.
Hanoi-based ex-Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby has won league titles in Singapore and Malaysia. Twitter: @DarbySteveCoach