When Vietnam fielded its first women’s national football team in 1997, its players wore oversized jerseys made for men. Sometimes the team had to travel an hour and a half from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to reach an available training location. Some players pushed carts on the street and sold bread to support their budding playing careers.
In the years since the Vietnam War – here called the American War – which ended in 1975, economic reform took precedence over sports. The Vietnam Football Federation, which governs football in the united country, was only established in 1989. In its early days, football was widely regarded as a man’s game, too difficult and demanding for women. With little money available, sports hardly seemed a desirable career choice for girls. But in most cases it didn’t matter: many parents were reluctant to let their daughters play.
“Society didn’t accept the existence of such a team,” said Mai Duc Chung, 74, Vietnam’s national women’s coach then and now.
A quarter of a century later, Vietnam is one of the dominant teams in Southeast Asia. She will play in the Women’s World Cup for the first time this month, starting with a match against the United States, the two-time defending champion, on Friday night (EST) in Auckland, New Zealand.
Vietnam’s arrival is the culmination of its nearly ten-year plan to develop women’s football, in part by expanding the World Cup field from 16 to 24 and now 32 teams, making this year’s tournament the biggest ever. This growth gives opportunities to non-traditional powers: eight nations in this year’s tournament, a quarter of the field, are participating for the first time.
It will be football’s biggest moment for Vietnam and the other leaders, a group that includes teams as diverse as Haiti, Ireland, Morocco and the Philippines. This will mean increased visibility and funding, increased professionalization of the sport and additional financial rewards. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has pledged at least $30,000 in prize money to every player participating in this year’s tournament.
But that same growth will bring inexperience and the prospect of a serious competitive imbalance when the newcomers face the best teams in the world. It was with great satisfaction that Vietnam finished ahead of their fiercest rivals, Thailand. But satisfaction comes with heavy pressure to avoid embarrassing performances like a 13-0 loss to the United States, as Thailand did at the last Women’s World Cup in 2019.
“We witnessed the fiasco and it is a lesson learned for Vietnam,” said Huynh Nhu, the team’s star player. She spoke through an interpreter, as did others interviewed for this article. “Thailand suffered such a big loss, they just fell back and their fighting spirit is gone. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will continue to fight.
Participating in the Women’s World Cup represents great national pride and an international sporting achievement for Vietnam, a country that has won only one Olympic gold medal (in air pistol shooting, at the 2016 Rio Olympics) and has never qualified for the Men’s World Cup, and where men’s football is more notorious for regular episodes of corruption and match-fixing.
But similar pride and similar difficulties overcome are reflected among other debutants this year. Ireland captain Katie McCabe grew up playing in boys’ teams, encouraged by an older brother and parents who now watch her play for London club Arsenal. Haiti’s players ran a national system in which federation officials were accused of coercing young players into sex, and Morocco’s players overcame deep traditional prejudices and frequent family objections to become the first team from an Arab country to qualify.
Team Vietnam went as far as any of them. Once shunned or simply ignored, Vietnamese women are now national household names. They were welcomed by their country’s prime minister after winning a World Cup place in a qualifying tournament in India last year and given a parade on a double-decker bus through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Their World Cup matches will be streamed live for their fellow citizens on various platforms.
More than any Vietnamese player, Huynh Nhu, 31, represents the opportunity and inequality that exist simultaneously in her country and, indeed, for women’s football around the world. She is the first female player from Vietnam to play for a club team in Europe after scoring seven goals in the recently concluded season for Lank FC Vilaverdense in Portugal’s second division. After the World Cup, Huynh Nhu is expected to extend her contract with the club, which has reportedly offered to double her salary to 3,000 euros (about $3,200 a month).
This is in stark contrast to the average salary of $200 to $300 per month in Vietnam’s semi-professional women’s league. On an annual basis, those wages remain below the country’s GDP per capita of $3,756.50 a year, according to the World Bank. Players often find second jobs to supplement their income. Before moving to Portugal last season, for example, Huynh Nhu ran a business selling coconuts in his rural hometown in the Mekong Delta.
She said she now has corporate ties with Visa, Coca-Cola and LG electronics. And she is the face of the unprecedented news coverage and sponsor attention currently being directed at Vietnam’s women’s national team. While away from their clubs training and participating in international competitions, national team members can earn about $850 a month, according to Mai, the national coach. (The reporters said the money was withheld for food and housing.)
The players were also rewarded with bonuses from the Vietnam Football Federation and sponsors for the recent triumphs. Not all bonuses are known, and it remains unclear exactly how much of the bonus pool is distributed between players and coaches. But the announced pool is equivalent to $8,000 apiece for winning the Southeast Asian Games in May for the eighth time and, according to journalists, $15,000 or more for qualifying for the World Cup. Bonuses aren’t always financial either; these can include motorcycles and cars.
Those figures are “very modest” compared to what top male soccer players can make in salary and endorsements in Vietnam, said Cao Hui To, executive director, former sports editor and longtime gender equality advocate at Tuoi Tre. a leading newspaper in Vietnam. But “it’s very significant, life-changing for women because most of them come from very poor backgrounds.”
Huynh Nhu’s family, for example, is building a three-story home that includes a shrine to her quarry and appears to be the tallest in the area, in her hometown of Tra Vinh.
Women in Vietnam’s national league, who do not play for the national team, live much more modestly. The league’s attendance is extremely low, roughly 100 to 300 people per game, journalists said, making many businesses reluctant to sponsor teams.
When a team representing Son La province in northwest Vietnam struggled to maintain sponsorship in recent years, its players’ monthly wages dropped to $130 or even $70 – far less than could be earned working in a factory. Some players left for better paying jobs and Son La is no longer in the league. Last year, when the club faced dissolution, its coach Luong Van Chuyen complained to an online newspaper that he only had four players. The others, Luong said, “left to go back home to get married and become workers.”
The issue of the different treatment of female footballers reached the highest levels of government after Vietnam qualified for the Women’s World Cup. Congratulating the returning players, Prime Minister Pham Min Chin called them “diamond girls” but also noted that they still face prejudice against playing what many still consider a man’s game, as well as difficulties stemming from uncertain income and lack of retirement security.
“We need to pay more attention to women’s soccer,” Pham said, urging soccer officials, government agencies and sponsors to help develop a sustainable model for the sport. It is not clear what steps, if any, have been taken to achieve this goal.
Football was introduced to Vietnam in 1896 during the French colonial period. The country claims to have fielded Asia’s first women’s team to briefly play against men in the early 1930s. After the Vietnam War, however, an unofficial ban on women’s soccer existed in the early 1990s, according to Cao, the journalist who began covering the sport later that decade.
To get around the ban, Cao said, a likable pharmacy director in Ho Chi Minh City transports toys to matches against men’s teams by hiding them in tarpaulin-covered cargo trucks. When the women’s national team was officially formed in 1997, Nguyen Thi Kim Hong was one of the players who sold bread to support her career.
“It was just our passion; Money was never the goal for the first generation,” said Nguyen, now 51 and the goalkeeping coach of the women’s national team.
Even some of the modern day stars faced resistance from their parents when they started acting. Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy, 29, was the youngest of three children and although her father was a soccer player, her parents worried that if she moved away from their home in central Vietnam, “no one would be your mother anymore.” . Eventually, she said, her father became her biggest supporter.
In February 2022, after Vietnam’s bid to qualify for the World Cup had all but collapsed as the coronavirus ravaged the women’s team, Bich Thuy scored the most important goal in the country’s history – a deft touch with his right foot and a decisive and historic strike with the lefty’s 2-1 playoff win over Taiwan, which FIFA calls Chinese Taipei. She dedicated the piece to her father, who passed away in 2016.
“It still feels like a dream,” Beach Thuy said of the goal. “My father always expected a lot from me. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see this.
Huynh Nhu, the star of the team, had more unconditional support from his parents. Her father, a former player, started training her when she was 3 or 4 years old. Her mother worked in a market in Tra Vinh province and brought home a soccer ball at Huynh Nhu’s request. Her father said he attached the ball to a rope to keep it from kicking into a ditch outside the home. She is now leading Vietnam’s national team to score a goal at the World Cup. For now, that might be a more achievable goal than expecting to win a game in a group that includes the United States, the Netherlands (2019 World Cup runners-up) and Portugal, another debutant just outside the top 20 in the latest World Cup ranking.
The benefactor of Thailand’s 2019 Women’s World Cup team, one of the country’s richest women, is said to have exhorted her players, saying: “If you score a goal, I’ll buy you a $5,000 Chanel bag.” , Huynh Nhu laughed.
“I look forward to having such a billionaire in my country,” she said.
Linh Pham contributes reporting from Tra Vinh, Vietnam.