Deep in the Vietnamese highlands, an academy teaching youths to play soccer with no boots or goalkeeper offers a glimmer of hope for a national team plagued by scandal and poor performances.
Hand-picked players train for nearly five hours a day in modern facilities at the elite school, which is backed by English Premier League giants Arsenal.
Recruited at about 10 or 11 years old, the players follow the “philosophy” of the JMG sports academies, set up by former French international player Jean-Marc Guillou.
“They start off barefoot — no shoes, no goalkeeper,” said coach Guillaume Graechen, who finds it amusing that other teams are “shocked” by their ways.
The trainees are allowed to lace up their football boots only after they have mastered juggling the ball, which usually takes about five months. The full training lasts seven years.
The method seems to be working for the two intakes of trainees that the HAGL-Arsenal JMG Academy in the town of Pleiku recruited in 2007 and 2009.
“They are on the same level with professionals in Vietnam, even Europe or overseas,” said Graechen, who personally selected all 27 students.
“Technically, tactically and intelligently, they are ready to be professional,” he said on the sidelines of the playing field, adding that the students had got more confident since playing in a competition in Europe last year.
The resort-like academy, which boosts manicured green pitches, a swimming pool, and immaculate villas for the trainees to live in, was set up and funded by Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which also owns an eponymous team in the V-League.
It has a partnership with Arsenal, which sends a manager to monitor student development once a year.
The academy “is working very well so far [and] many young players are developing,” visiting Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said last week.
Arsenal recently became the first English Premier League side to play in Vietnam and local fans — some of whom had queued overnight for tickets — packed the 40,000-seat My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi.
Vietnam lost 7-1 to the Gunners, but the closely-watched match was a high point for the national team which — like the domestic V-League — is usually shunned by fans who prefer to watch and bet on European matches.
Vietnamese soccer went professional in 2000. Prior to that, soccer players were — like many in the communist country — officially state employees.
“In the late 1980s, players truly played football with devotion,” said long-time soccer fan Tran Huy Tuong, from Ho Chi Minh City.
National team players “were considered heroes of Vietnamese soccer who could pack stadiums with fans,” he said nostalgically.
Almost immediately after the V-League was set up it became mired in controversy as allegations of corruption and match-fixing surfaced.
Dozens of players, referees and officials have been jailed or sanctioned due to their involvement in match-fixing scams.
“I stopped watching Vietnamese football about 10 years ago. I don’t even care when the national team plays,” 55-year-old Tuong said.
“They ruined my love for them because of continuous scandals,” he said, adding he has switched to watching international matches instead.
Fans also started staying away from V-League fixtures as violence increased — with hooligans throwing bottles, burning flares and scrapping after matches now commonplace at some clubs.
Attendance has fallen sharply in the last few years and clubs are losing money, which causes problems for wealthy club owners, many of whom have withdrawn their investments, also partly due to a general economic slowdown in Vietnam.
The national team also put in a dismal performance at the most recent Southeast Asian Games and has plunged to 145th in the FIFA World Rankings.
However, in Vietnam the love of the beautiful game dies hard. Soccer is, by all measures, the most popular sport in this country of about 90 million people.
On many Hanoi street corners, young boys — often barefoot — can be seen kicking cheap plastic balls around on the pavement after school classes, but sports facilities are lacking.
This is why the HAGL academy could prove so crucial to the development of domestic soccer.
“The fact we’ve trained them, for seven years, to play together, think together, it will affect Vietnamese football,” Graechen said.
“If the core of the best players continue to progress together, they will not need to talk each to other … they will just have to glance at each other to understand,” he added.
HAGL, one of Vietnam’s largest conglomerates, has recently attracted negative media attention after being identified in a Global Witness report as a driver of land disputes in neighboring Cambodia and Laos due to its extensive rubber plantations there.
A petition has been launched asking Arsenal to end its cooperation with HAGL — also one of the main sponsors of the Gunners’ recent Hanoi match — as it “brings shame on our club.”
HAGL “are using Arsenal to bring a veneer of respectability to their disgusting behavior,” the petition says.
Many of HAGL’s academy students hope to eventually play for a top-end European club, while others are likely to join V-League teams.
Ksor Uc, 17, from a poor Jarai ethnic minority family, hopes to one day play for Manchester United.
“I also dream of being able to put on the national team shirt and bring glory to Vietnam,” he said.