A distinguished German sociology professor, under whom I studied, once told me that the only time he ever saw his father cry was after West Germany had won the World Cup in 1954. West Germany had been a pariah nation after World War II and the German people lived under their own sense of guilt and deep regret for having supported Hitler and his inhumane policies. The victory by die Mannshaft (the team) signaled a new era for West Germany; it was a transition in regard to that country’s national pride and how Germany might now relate to the rest of the world. In rare cases, under rare combinations of circumstances, national sports teams can suddenly embody a sense of national purpose, re-instill pride and even mark turning points in the course or destiny of a nation.
Many Americans, for instance, can recall when a group of US college athletes defeated a professional Soviet hockey team in 1980, during the dark days of the Cold War, while the US was suffering from a lack of self-respect following the disastrous Vietnam War. This is said to have marked a turning point for Americans who slowly but surely began to regain pride in their country. In 2011, after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the Japanese women’s soccer team (comprised of semi-professionals) did the impossible by defeating a much better US team of brawny, well-trained and ambitious pros. Japan desperately needed that victory and against daunting odds their women athletes delivered it.
The nation of Vietnam experienced such a transitional moment recently as its Under-23 Men’s Soccer Team valiantly and unexpectedly fought its way into an Asian Football Confederation championship game against Uzbekistan and brought the people of Vietnam together in a raucous and peaceful celebration of the values and aspirations of their country. Following the semi-final victory against Qatar, Vietnam went wild, with people pouring into the streets carrying red Vietnamese flags. Vietnamese Facebook selfies were suddenly replaced by giant yellow stars against red backgrounds. The players themselves seemed to be aware of the possibilities of their victory as Phan Văn Đức, a midfielder, declared ahead of time that he would play in the semi-final match against Qatar as if it were his very last game and that he and his teammates were unquestionably playing for their people.
The big question becomes then, why now? What are so special about these times or circumstances that Vietnam was ready to take a momentous sports victory and turn it into a moment of shared nationalism? Vietnam, of course, experienced a horrific 20th century. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the people of Vietnam believed that they had gained their freedom and independence following the war. They were, however, stunned to see their old oppressor, France, come waltzing back in to reclaim its colony. This led to a brutal war that ultimately ended in French defeat when General Giap captured the French army at Dien Bien Phu. Yet, the suffering was not about to end as the Eisenhower administration brokered a peace treaty which literally divided Vietnam into two countries and then reneged on promises of nation-wide elections which would have peacefully unified the country under Ho Chi Minh.
War with the United States flared in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson falsely claimed Vietnam had attacked an American naval vessel and this was followed by years of horror in which United States soldiers committed atrocities against Vietnamese civilians, the US government dropped tons of bombs on the country and the USAir Force dispensed Agent Orange from airplanes to destroy Vietnamese forests - a chemical containing dioxin which leads, even to this day, to birth defects among Vietnamese children. Following the removal of US troops, Vietnam was then compelled to fight against its traditional foe, China, in a border war as well as fighting to end the terror of Pol Pot in Cambodia.
All of this left the nation of Vietnam devastated. The road to strength and autonomy has been long and hard and only now, it seems, can the Vietnamese people clearly see that they have reached a stage unimaginable just 30 years ago when Vietnam was one of the poorest nations on the planet and decided to experiment with a more market-driven and less centrally-planned economy. The massive, unplanned and spontaneous celebration in the streets seemed to be a sudden recognition by the Vietnamese people, a bifurcation point, that although there is still poverty and various social problems to address, they have pulled off a quiet miracle. The horror is behind them and prosperity seems to be this country’s future. This is a new Vietnam filled with youth, confidence, creativity, intelligence and optimism. This is a country that not only refused to quit, but it has risen through its own determination and hard work. The pride has been swelling and all they needed was a dazzling spectacle of effort and courage to bring everyone together.
For a sports team to rise to this level of significance in a country, the team must be hopeless underdogs (as these guys, mostly from the Vietnamese countryside, were). They must however, show a continual desire to rise above any obstacle as well as help create a drama in which you start to become convinced that the hand of providence is intervening. Beating teams assessed to be better than they were was a start, but getting through two games through over-time penalty kicks helped create that sense of being chosen. Finally, the team, itself, must accept and embrace the awesome responsibility of carrying their people’s dreams.
Somewhere in this tournament, something clicked and these guys donned that mantle. Their countrymen and women could see themselves in the struggle of their under-23 team, which was not accorded much chance of success in the tournament, as Vietnam was not accorded much hope even after it freed itself from foreign intervention. How did these guys pull this off? Well, how did Vietnam pull this off?
With each victory, pride and hope surged and the uncontrollable outpouring after the semi-finals was Vietnam’s victory lap for having overcome the effects of colonization and debilitating war to establish a stable society of industrious, smart, passionate and caring people. In the last match the Red Warriors of Vietnam played valiantly in the snow of Changzhou, China. Many of the players had not even seen snow before and they were at too great a disadvantage this time. Yet, I’m sorry Uzbekistan, you might have won the championship game with a last-minute goal, but Vietnam won the hearts of the world.