Nguyễn Công Phượng should be at the height of his powers when World Cup 2026 qualifying rolls around. Photo

Peter Cowan

By the time you read this column, Việt Nam will have resumed their World Cup qualification campaign against Indonesia in the UAE and we’ll know just a little bit more about how far this team can go.

At the time of writing though, there are plenty of possibilities stretching out before coach Park Hang-seo and his players.

They could collapse and get dumped out now, or make it to the third and final round of qualifying and bow out after a commendable effort or perhaps even do the unthinkable and make it all the way to Qatar.

Whatever the result, Vietnamese fans can keep dreaming of their team’s first World Cup appearance, but at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, perhaps the best chance of fulfilling that dream is yet to come.

The 2026 World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico may be five (or 15 in COVID-years) years away, but it’s never too early to start fantasising about what could be.

Thanks to FIFA’s ever-reliable penchant for greed, the tournament will be expanded from the current 32 teams to 48 for 2026.

The change is likely to be a bad thing for the quality of the tournament and almost certainly detrimental to the health of already overworked players, but it will give lesser lights like Việt Nam a much greater chance of qualifying.

It’s not just a mere numbers game that will give the boys in red a leg up though.

By the time qualifying for the 2026 tournament begins at some point in 2023, Việt Nam’s current crop of star players should be reaching the height of their powers.

The likes of Nguyễn Quang Hải, Nguyễn Văn Toàn, Nguyễn Công Phượng and Nguyễn Tuấn Anh will all be in their late 20s, considered the peak of an outfield player’s abilities.

Added to that, the country’s already top-level youngsters led by Đoàn Văn Hậu and Nguyễn Tiến Linh should have also developed their games significantly by then.

Development, though, is the keyword and for Việt Nam to make the most of the golden opportunity 2026 presents, some of those names mentioned above will have to be playing their club football abroad, whether in Europe or top Asian leagues like South Korea or Japan.

As much as the V.League 1 is improving and can be great entertainment, the harsh reality is the quality of play is already far below what Quang Hải et al are capable of.

Of course, I’m far from the first person and far from the most qualified person to say Việt Nam’s golden generation needs to play outside Việt Nam, but now it really is approaching last-chance saloon for them to get overseas and make their mark.

So whether it’s star players’ reluctance to leave the comfort and fame they have at home, or if it’s clubs refusing to negotiate deals in good faith, something needs to change quickly, if only for the selfish reason I’d much rather travel to watch Việt Nam play in Houston or California than in Doha.

For now though, I’ll greedily dream of watching Công Phượng strut his stuff in both Qatar and the US.  VNS

SportNews / Times24H


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