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Asean Football Legends - Le Cong Vinh

Continuing our series on some of the legendary players who have graced the Asean Football Championship, we look at striker Le Cong Vinh whose match-winning heroics propelled Vietnam to glory in the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Midway through Vietnam’s AFF Suzuki Cup campaign in 2008, striker Le Cong Vinh was enduring a torrid time.

Vietnam had managed to qualify for the semi-finals after finishing second in their group but Cong Vinh, the ‘Golden Boy’ of Vietnamese football, had done little thus far, firing blanks in the 2-0 loss to Thailand and 3-2 win over Malaysia before suffering the indignity of being replaced at half-time by Nguyen Viet Thang in his side’s final group match against Laos on his 23rd birthday.

Coach Henrique Calisto’s decision to haul off the ineffectual Cong Vinh was justified as Viet Thang opened the scoring early in the second half to spark a 4-0 win that sent the Vietnamese through to the last four. However, the Portuguese still had faith that his misfiring star striker would eventually come good.

"There is no doubt as to his quality - otherwise, he will not be in the national side," said Calisto.

"He is a terrific striker but at the moment, I believe that Cong Vinh has a belief issue. He needs to believe and score the goal for Vietnam.

"At this stage of his development, he is going through a rough patch but I think that if he can score that one goal, then it will make all the difference not only to his playing ability but also to the team."

The words of the Vietnam coach would prove prophetic. While he failed to score in the semi-final against Singapore, Cong Vinh played a huge part in setting up the winning goal for Nguyen Quang Hai that would send his country through to the final at the expense of the defending champions.

And in the final against Thailand, he ended his scoring drought to give his side a 2-1 win in the first leg in Bangkok.

However, that only laid the foundation for his late heroics in the return game in Hanoi. With the game seemingly headed for extra-time after Thailand had levelled the aggregate score at 2-2, Cong Vinh won a free-kick on the left flank and then dashed into the Thai box to meet Nguyen Minh Phuong’s cross to the near post with a deft backward header.

The ball looped over the heads of Thai goalkeeper Kosin Hathairattanakool and his defenders before it lodged into the far corner of the net to give Vietnam a 3-2 aggregate win which kicked off huge celebrations throughout the length of the country.

Thus in one fell swoop, all of Cong Vinh’s earlier problems in front of goal during the tournament had been forgotten and he was once again the darling of Vietnamese football.

"This is the most memorable goal I have scored in my entire career," said the striker, who lost his shirt during his wild celebrations after the goal. "We worked hard and we are worthily awarded for our efforts."

Regarded as the natural successor to Le Huynh Duc, Cong Vinh had also succeeded where the legendary Vietnamese striker had failed and delivered Vietnam’s first-ever international title.

Huynh Duc had been the country’s first bona fide star following Vietnam’s return to international football in 1991 following nearly two decades of isolation. But despite the best efforts of the talismanic striker and captain, who netted 30 goals during his 12 years as a national player, Vietnam were unable to land any silverware.

They went close in 1998 when they finished runners-up on home soil in the Asean Football Championship, losing 1-0 to Singapore despite dominating the final in Hanoi. But otherwise they bowed out in the semi-finals on three of four occasions from 1996 to 2002.

The final ignominy for Huynh Duc came in 2004 when Vietnam co-hosted the group stage but failed to get past the opening round after drawing 1-1 with Singapore and losing 3-0 to Indonesia. Huynh Duc’s frustration after that disappointing exit was obvious as he called an end to his career.

"There are a lot of internal reasons that contributed to Vietnam’s defeat at (the Asean Football Championship)," he said somewhat bitterly. "But for now, the only thing I can say is that we, the players, faced a lot of pressure and burden before the tournament even started."

But if there was a silver lining to the 32-year-old’s decision to call it quits, it was the presence in the Vietnamese squad at that tournament of a precocious teenager who would take over his mantle as the nation’s star striker.

Le Cong Vinh was born in Nghe An province in 1985 and showed early promise when he joined the youth squad at V-League side Song Lam Nghe An as a 13-year-old. His pace, quickness of thought, excellent passing ability and coolness in front of goal marked him out as an exceptional forward and by the age of 15, he had been called up to Vietnam’s U-20 side.

In 2003, he played in the U-23 side which reached the final of the South-East Asian Games and such was the young striker’s talent that the following year, he won the Vietnamese Golden Ball – an annual award for the best Vietnamese player – in his debut season for Song Lam in the V-League.

He was also selected for Vietnam’s senior team for the Asean Football Championship in 2004 and started in all four of their matches in the competition, netting four goals including a hat-trick in a 9-1 win over Cambodia.

Following Huynh Duc’s retirement, Cong Vinh established himself as a first-choice striker at both U-23 and senior level. He scored the goal which sent Vietnam through to the 2005 SEA Games final but had a disappointing outing at the 2007 Asean Football Championship when he failed to score in both legs of the semi-finals as the Indochinese side were eliminated in the last four by Thailand.

However, he would make his mark on Asian football later that year with an exquisite chipped goal in a 2-0 win against the United Arab Emirates in the AFC Asian Cup which helped to propel Vietnam to the quarter-finals where they were beaten by eventual champions Iraq.

By 2008, Cong Vinh had won the Vietnamese Golden Ball three times and he became the most expensive player in V-League history after leaving Song Lam to join Hanoi T&T. That all served to add to the pressure on the striker for the AFF Suzuki Cup, where he struggled initially before finding his form at just the right moment to permanently write his name in Vietnamese football lore.

His AFF Suzuki Cup success helped to pave the way for a three-month loan spell in 2009 at Portuguese top flight side Leixoes which made him the first-ever Vietnamese footballer to appear in a European professional league.

Unfortunately, Cong Vinh tore ligaments in his knee in May 2010 and had to undergo surgery which caused him to miss Vietnam’s defence of their AFF Suzuki Cup title later that year.

But having returned to form during the 2012 season at Hanoi FC, the 26-year-old could be set to make his mark once again at this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup and write yet another chapter in his impressive career.