Huỳnh Như interview: Brave Như World – Vietnam’s Golden Star

A long-time leading light for Vietnamese women’s football, national-team captain Huỳnh Như is weeks away from walking them out onto the global stage. Intent on showcasing the skills that have made her their all-time top scorer, the team’s ‘show before the show’ also rests in her trusted hands.

When a World Cup comes around, nothing brings a warmer glow than the tournament’s ability to elevate the profile of relatively-undiscovered teams and individuals, to potentially-life-changing effect. The assertion that only the winners are remembered does not quite ring true in a competition where even one enchanting goal or inventive celebration can be forever remembered.

This year’s women’s edition features eight debuting nations, including Vietnam, set to be eased in gently with a group opener against a United States team pursuing an unprecedented third successive title. Next come their fellow newcomers Portugal, before 2019 runners-up, the Netherlands.

The Golden Star Warriors gained a significant boost in one of their final warm-up games, drawing admiration for how they limited EURO 2022 runners-up Germany to a 2-1 scoreline in Offenbach. Whatever the outcome of their upcoming group encounters, there is confidence from within that the characteristics on which they pride themselves will shine through.

“We are in a difficult group, with the best teams in the world, but I believe that we will show our best fighting spirit and never give up,” says star striker Huỳnh Như. “It is true that we are the underdogs, but you can never predict what will happen before the final whistle in football.”

The five-time Vietnamese Golden Ball winner brings an added dimension to her captaincy role. On her way to join the team for May’s Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia (a competition that yielded a gold medal), she shared a shot of her luggage, with a portable speaker sitting pretty up top.

For the hype-upping number nine, it is a travel essential.

“With the national team, I’m usually the one who prepares the speaker and song selection; we usually listen to energetic and popular songs from Vietnam.”

At club level, she took the road less – more accurately, never – travelled last year, becoming the first female Vietnamese player to sign overseas. The destination was Portugal, and the Vila Verde, Braga-based Länk FC Vilaverdense, with whom she would finish 6th in the top-flight Liga BPI.

It was a daring step for the 31-year-old, though not entirely without its familiarity.

“Definitely my life has changed a lot since I moved to Portugal, from football to personal life. In Portugal, the football is about technique and ball possession, but the speed of play is also very quick and demands lots of physicality.

“We Vietnamese also have several players with similar qualities to the Portuguese, but our league system needs more time to be as good. Portuguese culture has some similarities to Vietnamese, such as the passion for football.

“The food is different, but delicious from both countries, and the weather is similar, with four seasons. There are several international players in my team and it allows us to exchange our cultures between the West and the East; we are happy to learn from each other.”

Born in the Châu Thành district of Trà Vinh province in November 1991, the future goal-getter grew up in an era of steadily-increasing access to football coverage around the globe. Like so many millions of others, she found herself mesmerised by one man’s explosive finishing and samba-infused step-overs (while staring down goalkeepers).

“When I was a kid, I used to watch the Brazilian Ronaldo; his goals and dribbling skills are just simply out of this world, that’s why he is called ‘The Phenomenon.’ I would describe myself as a technical player.

“I can dribble in tight space, hard-working, and a team player; I will play anywhere if requested by the coach.”

Despite her football devotion, it is not the only pastime that fills Huỳnh with happiness, the string-strumming skipper also playing the guitar and ukulele.

“My dad plays guitar and my mom sings very well, so I guess I’m influenced by them a lot, since I was a little kid. Now I can do both, it is a joy of my life.

“The combination makes me relax during stressful times, and it’s something to have fun with when I hang out with a group of friends, or on a special occasion.”

There was nothing more deserving of celebration than their World Cup qualification, the path to which was lathered in disruption. In preparation for the 2022 Asian Cup, a pre-tournament camp in Spain saw COVID cases in the squad result in just six players and five staff (including head coach Mai Đức Chung) initially flying to India for the competition.

With three further cases after arriving, the team’s participation was hanging in the balance until 12 players still in Spain then returned negative tests, meaning a late rush to get them to India. In light of the adversity, the 3-0 losses to Japan and Korea Republic to start the group were commendable, and ultimately crucial, as their 2-2 draw with Myanmar sent them through as a third-place finisher, by virtue of a goal difference one better than their opponents. Twice behind in that game, Huỳnh converted the vital penalty just after the hour.

A 3-1 defeat to China PR in the quarter-final put Vietnam into a play-off round robin, with wins over Thailand (2-0) and Chinese Taipei (2-1) sealing their historic qualification. Scorer of their first against Thailand, Huỳnh describes how much of an impact the story made back home.

“When we qualified for the World Cup, it was big news in Vietnam, because we are the second team that qualified for a World Cup event, after the futsal team that did it in 2016 in Colombia; in terms of 11-a-side football, we are the first one. Women’s football in Vietnam is not as popular as men’s, but it is changing.

“There are more organised amateur leagues and more academies for female players recently, and it is important for our development. There is still a long way to go to be at the level of European countries, but I feel the positivity in our growth in women’s football.”

The Golden Star Warriors don’t tend to struggle to feel uplifted. One such clip of the team saw them enjoying the infectiously-upbeat ‘Rồi Nâng Cái Ly’ by singer Nal (no Vietnamese understanding necessary to get it stuck in your head!). The sight of one staff member, team leader Phạm Thanh Hùng, letting the rhythm run loose, as players start to join in, is enough to make even the most cynical smile.

Huỳnh shares the name of the female artist who gets the spirit in her soul soaring.

“I like a famous Vietnamese singer named Mỹ Tâm. I very much like a song from this singer, called ‘Niềm tin chiến thắng’ – translation: believe in victory – because it boosts my confidence.”

In the final match at the aforementioned Southeast Asian Games, Huỳnh scored Vietnam’s first in a 2-0 win over Myanmar at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. The kind of feat she has become accustomed to, it was her extra-time winner in the 2019 AFF Championship final against hosts Thailand in Chonburi that clinched their third title.

At club level, she has enjoyed vast success back home, with seven league championships during her time at Hồ Chí Minh City. Although her move to Portugal last year was her first change of club at senior level, has she ever had an initiation song to do?

“I didn’t have to perform any song when I first joined the club, but during the season, there was one time that I scored and later danced as a celebration. The song is called ‘See Tình’ (by female V-pop singer Hoàng Thuỳ Linh) and my teammates started to play that song often since then.”

A name she mentioned earlier comes up again as she is asked which artist (from all-time) she would choose to see perform. It brings back memories of a time in her career when football and music seemed to have a clash of schedules!

“It would definitely be Mỹ Tâm because I have never attended any of her concerts. I remember a long time ago, when I was having a trial with my former club in Hồ Chí Minh City, Mỹ Tâm also organised a concert at the same time.

“I really wanted to go, but I had not heard the result yet, and when I successfully made the trial, that’s when the show had ended.”

Thousands will soon be watching the forward and her teammates at packed venues, with millions more tuned in around the world. Vietnam are among the teams in this World Cup where the bonds run especially deep, born out of so many years travelling and competing together.

If she was ever to draw upon her instrumental and vocal skills by recording a song for real, with a teammate from her career required to join her, Huỳnh would go for their vastly-experienced number eight.

“It will be (Trần Thị) Thùy Trang, my teammate at my former club and with the national team.”

After the near miss of their 2-1 play-off loss at home to Thailand (in front of 18,000 at Thống Nhất Stadium) for a place at the 2015 World Cup, their greatest moment arrived last year to the discordant backdrop of a COVID-enforced, crowd-less stadium. Tens of thousands, though, will soon await them at games in Auckland, Hamilton and Dunedin.

The efforts to get there, and all the years that preceded their qualification, are in Huỳnh’s mind when looking ahead to these momentous next few weeks.

“Whenever I think of it, I remember all the memories that our team spent together. We have gone through a difficult journey to arrive at the World Cup, especially when we played the play-off during COVID time.

“We definitely are very proud to be here, to introduce our country to the world’s biggest football stage.”

The wonderment of the tournament is difficult to look beyond at present, but the remainder of their 2023 also brings the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China (beginning in September), before a trip to Uzbekistan in late-October for second-round Olympic qualifying group games. Drawn with Uzbekistan, Japan and India, in order to reach the final round on the pursuit of Paris 2024, they must win the group or rank as the best second-place finisher.

In any case, the great hope for the Golden Star Warriors is that 2023 will be more than just a moment in the sun. Huỳnh details her wish for an indelible impact to be made.

“This is the first World Cup that we participate in but I hope many more will come in the future. When young girls see our national team in the World Cup, I feel that they can see a pathway to become a pro player, a career choice in the future.

“I hope that we will have more girls playing football, creating a solid, grassroot foundation in Vietnam. There is a lot to do for our football in Vietnam, and I hope that we can create and organise a more professional league structure, so that our players can benefit from it.”

After sitting out the recent game against Germany, head coach Mai Đức Chung says she will now step up her preparations while they are back home in Hanoi. Then comes the journey to New Zealand, with final friendly matches against the co-hosts and Spain, before their USA opener.

How better to gear up for the first global tournament of your career than a hypothetical kickaround with Beats & Rhymes FC?! The long-time closing question asks interviewees for their suggestions of current or former teammates they would like alongside them in a fantasy 5-a-side line-up, based purely on enjoyment.

Huỳnh begins her multi-national fab five with a Finnish midfielder and a young Portuguese winger.

“Four players would be: Sini (Laaksonen) and Gabi (Gonçalves) from Länk FC Vilaverdense, Thùy Trang and goalkeeper (Trần Thị) Kim Thanh, from the national team.”

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