The AFF Suzuki Cup was hard-wired into the psyche of Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh, the country’s standout player of his generation.

Cong Vinh wrote his name into Vietnamese football lore with the injury-time header that secured the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2008 – “the most memorable goal of my career” – giving his side a 3-2 aggregate win over Thailand.

“At that time, I could not believe that I had scored. I just remember that after I scored the decisive goal, I could not hear anything. I took off my jersey and ran into the stands to celebrate with the spectators,” he said in an interview.

“When the referee blew the final whistle, I was so happy because I had contributed such a great thing. Winning the AFF Suzuki Cup was something that football fans in Vietnam, indeed the whole nation, were hungry for. I will never forget that moment.”

Age: 32
Clubs: Song Lam Nghe An, Hanoi FC, Leixoes, Consadole Sapporo, Becamex Binh Duong
International Appearances (Goals): 83 (51)
AFF Suzuki Cup Appearances: 2016, 2014, 2012, 2008, 2007, 2004
AFF Suzuki Cup Champion: 2008

The prodigious talent

Cong Vinh’s winning goal at My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi was written in the stars with the striker destined to succeed from a relatively young age.

Barely in his teens, Cong Vinh played for the youth squad at Song Lam Nghe An and his speed, ability to read the game and eye for goal saw him graduate to Vietnam’s under-20 side when just 15.

He turned out for the under-23 team that reached the final of the Southeast Asian Games on home soil in 2003 and the next year was named the most outstanding player in the V.League after some great displays for Song Lam Nghe An.

Senior team breakthrough

His first taste of action in the ASEAN Football Championship was in 2004 when he scored a hat-trick in the 9-1 win over Cambodia. Vietnam, however, failed to qualify for the semi-finals despite Cong Vinh’s four goals in four matches.

By now Vietnam’s first-choice striker, Cong Vinh hit the winner in the last-four encounter with Malaysia at the 2005 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines and although he failed to score in the 3-0 loss to Thailand in the final his star was still very much in the ascendency.

That was underlined during the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 when he hit the target in Vietnam’s 2-0 victory over the United Arab Emirates that helped steer them into the last eight where they went down to eventual champions Iraq.

A champion emerges

By the time the AFF Suzuki Cup came around in 2008, Cong Vinh had become the most expensive player in V.League history when joining Hanoi T&T (now Hanoi FC) from Song Lam Nghe An.

And he lived up to his reputation by scoring the winner in the 2-1 first leg victory over Thailand before his 94th minute header in the return leg gave Vietnam their first and so far only title.

History maker

The local hero turned trailblazer in 2009 when he became the first-ever Vietnamese footballer to appear in a European professional league during his loan spell with Portuguese top flight side Leixoes.

After missing the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup through injury, Cong Vinh had – by his lofty standards – a poor tournament in 2012 and lost his place in the national set up for a spell.

He moved to Consadole Sapporo in Japan to gain further experience and on his return to Vietnam was soon back into his old free scoring ways for club and country.

The latter years

Cong Vinh played his part in Vietnam’s runs to the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2014 and 2016, scoring four goals and two goals respectively, before calling time on his fantastic career.

More than 100 goals at club level and over 50 for Vietnam during 12 years of international football are testimony to his ability, industry and tenacity.

The striker retired from football after the 2016 edition of the ASEAN tournament, just three days before his 31st birthday. With 15 goals in the regional championship, he is the competition’s joint second highest scorer and a true AFF Suzuki Cup icon.

Photos: Getty Images