Park Hang-seo: ‘The Terminator’ taking the Vietnam national football team to new heights

Park Hang-seo’s story with the Vietnam men’s football team is nothing short of revolutionary.

This charismatic coach took over as manager of Vietnam senior and U23 sides in 2017 and had a kind of instant success that most football managers can only dream of.

Before him, no foreign coach had made it past the eight-month mark in a job, now he’s a national institution still in his position five years later, and you’ll even see Vietnamese fans waving Korean flags in his honour.

Just a few months into Park’s tenure, his team had already made a first-ever final at the 2018 AFC U23 Championships, before he masterminded the first South East Asian Games victory for a Vietnamese team in 43 years at the 2019 South-East Asian (SEA) Games in Manila.

When he took his team to the final qualifying round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup for the first time ever, allowing millions of football-crazy fans to dream of seeing their boys at the big one, his iconic status was sealed.

A national hero in two nations, Park has re-energised the ‘Golden Stars’ and has even been credited with a spectacular rise in tourism and improved diplomatic relations between South Korea and Vietnam.

Now he’s aiming to recapture the SEA Games title in Hanoi, and also looking long term to helping Vietnam qualify for their first-ever FIFA World Cup in 2026 set to be held in United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Read more about the man who, as assistant manager of head coach Guus Hiddink, helped South Korea reach a historic semi-final at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Vietnam players hoist coach Park hang-seo high after winning the Southeast Asian Games in 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun TPX

Park hang-seo: How his wife helped him get the Vietnam coaching job

A career blessed with much success hasn’t been without its low points though.

There was a time when Park was drifting and after he had won the K-League Challenge (South Korea’s second tier) a couple of times back home, he found himself managing in the third division, but things didn’t work out.

A search for new opportunities in China didn’t come off either and his career seemed to have hit an impasse.

Reportedly, it was his wife who encouraged him to look to South East Asia for a new challenge, but he was hesitant as his lack of knowledge or contacts in the region could hold him back.

“Your dream is to coach beyond the borders of South Korea,” his wife said to him, according to Park, “since you’re already advanced in years now, let’s see this as the final challenge in your career and go.”

The story goes that the woman found the contact of an agent named Lee Dong-jun, who had a handle on football in the region, and she even made him call the number that instant while she watched.

A year later the Vietnam national job offer came in and the rest is history.

Another version comes from a Q&A with Park in Vietnamese paper VN Express back in 2018:

“Actually, it was kind of a surprise. I’d never trained a Vietnamese team before. Then my agent told me that the VFF (Vietnam Football Federation) was interested in me while I was in charge of a small South Korean team.

“I did not know much about Vietnam or the Vietnamese players. All I knew was that Xuan Truong was playing in South Korea and that Vietnamese football is developing fast.

“I wanted to challenge myself. I think this is the last challenge and opportunity in my career. Now my dream of coaching abroad has been fulfilled and it’s lucky that everything has been good.”

He’s now a national hero in two nations and there’s even an Instagram fan account called ‘Only Coach Park’ that has over 123,000 followers.

How Park Hang-seo revolutionised Vietnamese football

His immediate success changed the game in Vietnam as he helped lead and motivate this current ‘Golden Generation’ that has achieved so much.

Bringing through players like Nguyen Quang Hai, defensive duo Do Duy Manh and Doan Van Hau, and 27-year-olds Nguyen Cong Phuong and Luong Xuan Truong, Park knows how to organise and motivate a team like few others.

First he began by building the team’s confidence and defending them in the press, saying things like: “Vietnamese players have their own unique special qualities in terms of pace, strength and technique.”

And: “I don’t know why people keep saying that being small is a weak point for Vietnamese players. Small players are quicker, and in addition, Vietnamese players are smart, they can easily understand my strategies and adapt to them very quickly.”

Tactically, he played with three in midfield rather than four, setting the team up in a 3-5-2 formation shoring up the midfield and defence, introducing more upper-body gym sessions and better physical preparation, and making them more tenacious in the tackle.

His attention to detail is famous and was once caught on camera checking every single player’s face mask to make sure the Vietnamese flag was the right way around.

The emotional bond between Vietnam’s players and coach Park

Passion and emotion has driven this sporting revolution as much as a footballing philosophy and tactics, Park speaks of the powerful relationship he forged with his players almost immediately.

“I decided to leave everything behind. I went from going to the World Cup in 2002 to becoming the head coach of Vietnam’s U23 national team.

“But every morning when I looked into the players’ eyes, it made me stronger, it motivated me. I couldn’t find that feeling even in my hometown.

“It’s not just me, all the members of my crew felt it too.

“In training, I had to yell at them and be strict. But after all we’re a team, we have to put our egos behind us. I am the head coach, I have to be their role model. I’d like them to look at me as a big brother.”

Park’s sideline game is famous too. His expressive reactions have inspired many memes, and his players don’t hold back either, their tears when they lost to China in World Cup qualifying genuine and heartfelt.

Park helps elevate Korea-Vietnam relations

The phenomenon that is Park Hang-seo has even had a positive political and social effect.

When South Korea’s nation television network SBS made a documentary about him in 2018, suddenly many people in the country took notice and interest in Vietnam soared.

In 2018, Vietnam recorded a record-high number of 3.4 million visitors from South Korea – over a quarter of total international arrivals, then in the first half of 2019, 1.11 million visitors arrived from Park’s homeland, up 24.1% compared to the previous year.

Park’s humility would never allow him to take credit for that rise, but his popularity in both countries has undoubtedly had an effect.

Off the football pitch his profile was growing too, and soon he was meeting the President of South Korea at the time Moon Jae-in.

A new type of visa was even introduced for Vietnamese travellers to South Korea facilitating a flow of people, trade, and ideas between the two countries, giving Vietnam a privileged relationship as the first country in Southeast Asia to be able to avail of this type of visa.

Park Hang-seo nickname: ‘The Terminator’

So why do they call him The Terminator?

Because he has a knack of pulling off victories against bigger sides who then decide to fire their manager following a humbling defeat.

Among his most illustrious ‘victims’ are Sven-Goran Eriksson, Bert van Marwijk, and even his old friend Guus Hiddink when he was at the helm of China’s U23 side.

Park has put Vietnamese football on the map and in a country that loves to watch Europe’s top leagues, now they have a national team they can be proud of.

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