Vietnam meets the mighty USWNT in a very special game that they certainly cannot win

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Vietnam’s arduous journey to its first World Cup has transcended everything from regional rivalries to patriarchal norms. It started decades ago, but decades after the American War – because for years after reunification, the country unofficially banned women from playing football. So the journey officially began in 1997, with the women’s national team in oversized men’s jerseys and without financial support. Over the next quarter century, it has been a wild ride.

It ended up via Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, and Adelaide, Australia, and Chengdu, China. It stretched to Amman, Jordan and Pune, India. He went through a country, Vietnam, that loves football but had no way to support it. Instead individual players encouraged it with passion – and often with day jobs, perhaps selling coconuts or bread to subsidize their fun.

They often came from poverty to push the women’s national team to the Asian Cups, and to the verge of qualifying for the World Cup. They fell just short in 2015. But last winter, they defeated Thailand and Taiwan, and entered the expanded field of 32 teams. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, they received a heroine’s welcome at the presidential palace. The final stages of the trip took them on a double-decker bus through main streets, and to ceremonies with the president and prime minister of Vietnam.

And it will end on Saturday in Auckland, at Eden Park, with a game that Vietnam definitely cannot win.

“We will have very appropriate tactics so that we can reduce the agreed goals, and reduce the injuries,” head coach Mai Duc Chung said Friday through a translator. “And if we can score a goal, it would be great!”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 18: Captain Huynh Nhu during Vietnam's training session at Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai on July 18, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Captain Huynh Nhu during Vietnam’s training session at Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai on July 18, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

They’ll meet the United States (Friday at 9 p.m. ET, Fox), the powerful US women’s national team, back-to-back World Cup winners who have spent the better part of three decades dominating their sport. “We are now looking at a big, high mountain,” said Mai. The USWNT is a -50000 favorite to win the game, with an implied probability of 99.8%. The last time the Americans played a World Cup match against a seemingly superficial Southeast Asian team, they beat Thailand 13-0.

So, of course, that’s where the talk of the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup opening began.

“Are you going to crush us like Thailand four years ago?” a Vietnam News Agency reporter asked US head coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday.

In fact, it started last month. At the USWNT’s pre-tournament media day in Los Angeles, a reporter asked about that Thailand game and all that followed — the silly debates about whether the USWNT should have run up the score, and the polarizing arguments about their celebrations.

Alex Morgan did not accept the question at all. Instead, she questioned his premise.

“Looking at this tournament, and the games we’re going to play, you can’t compare our game against Thailand to the games we have coming,” Morgan said. “We have incredible respect for Vietnam.”

She cited one data point that indicated she was right. In a pre-tournament friendly, Vietnam held its own against perennial rivals Germany. He lost 2-1 – only 2-1.

Other data points, however, have been a little more ominous. Vietnam’s last friendly before the tournament, here in New Zealand last week, ended 9-0 to Spain. Even at the Asian Cup, Vietnam’s route to qualification, it did not win any of its first four matches. His players are almost all semi-professional. Its star, Huynh Nhu, the first Vietnamese woman to play professionally overseas, reportedly makes about $1,600 a month in Portugal’s second division — or about 1/15th of what one USWNT player makes for winning one World Cup qualifying game.

And while the U.S. players grew up touring on fancy fields with elaborate equipment, “when I started playing soccer, it wasn’t a ball, it was a coconut,” Nhu said Friday. “No papaya.”

“But now, I’m playing on the biggest stage in the world,” she said at a smiling press conference. “It’s like a fairy tale for me.”

She and her teammates traveled a long way to get to that point. “Our life in the past was very difficult,” said Mai. “We’ve never had the chance to play the top team in the world.” Now if they do, “we have a lot to learn,” he said. “We’re here to learn from all the teams in the world.”

They are here too, with “spirit,” Nhu said.

They carry, tour Eden Park, pose for awesome photos, but “we come here not only for tourism,” said Mai. “We’re here to play.”

US players and coaches expect them to be “organized” and persistent. A 6-0 drubbing is possible, if not impossible, but a 13-0 repeat seems unlikely. “We saw the [Thailand] fiasco,” Nhu told The New York Times recently. “Thailand suffered such a huge defeat, they just fell back, and their fighting spirit is no longer there. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will continue to fight.”

“We [will] try our best,” said Mai on Friday.

They will play with “pride,” and with “nothing to lose.”

But do they think they can win?

The question on Friday drew laughter from the Vietnamese media, and laughter from Mai.

“I mean, if we can win, that’s fantastic,” he said. “We’re not going to deny that.”

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