When Vietnam fielded its first women’s national soccer team in 1997, its players wore oversized jerseys made for men. At times, the team had to travel an hour and a half from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to reach an available training site. Some players pushed carts on the street and sold bread to sustain their nascent playing careers.
In the years after the Vietnam War — called the American War here — ended in 1975, economic reform took precedence over sports. The Vietnam Football Federation, which governs soccer in the unified country, was not established until 1989. In its early days, soccer was widely considered a game for men, too hard and demanding for women to play. With little money available, the sport hardly seemed a desirable career choice for girls. But that did not matter in most cases: 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 women’s national coach then and now.
A quarter of a century later, Vietnam is one of the dominant teams in Southeast Asia. This month, it will play for the first time in the Women’s World Cup, starting with a game against the United States, the two-time defending champion, on Friday night (Eastern time) in Auckland, New Zealand.
Vietnam’s arrival is the culmination of its nearly decade-long plan to develop women’s soccer, in part through expansion of the World Cup field from 16 to 24 and now to 32 teams, making this year’s tournament the largest in history. That growth is giving opportunities to nontraditional powers: Eight nations in this year’s tournament, fully a quarter of the field, are participating for the first time.
This will be the biggest soccer moment for Vietnam and the other first-timers, a group that includes teams as diverse as Haiti, Ireland, Morocco and the Philippines. It will mean increased visibility and funding, enhanced professionalization of the sport and additional financial rewards. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has promised at least $30,000 in prize money to each player participating in this year’s tournament.
But that same growth will bring inexperience and the prospect of severe competitive imbalance when the newcomers face off against the world’s best teams. It was with great fulfillment that Vietnam qualified ahead of its fiercest rival, Thailand. But gratification comes with burdensome pressure to avoid embarrassing performances, like losing by 13-0 to the United States, as Thailand did in the last Women’s World Cup in 2019.
“We witnessed the fiasco, and it’s a lesson learned for Vietnam,” said Huynh Nhu, the team’s star forward. She spoke through an interpreter, as did others interviewed for this article. “Thailand suffered such a big loss, they just kind of fell backward, and their fighting spirit is no longer there. No matter what happens against the United States and other powers, we will keep fighting.”
Participating in the Women’s World Cup represents great national pride and 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 soccer is better known for regular episodes of corruption and match fixing.
But similar pride and similar hardships overcome are echoed across the other debutantes in this year’s field. Ireland’s captain, Katie McCabe, grew up playing on boys’ teams, encouraged by an older brother and parents who now watch her play for the London club Arsenal. Haiti’s players navigated a national system in which federation officials have been accused of coercing young players into sex, and Morocco’s overcame profound traditional biases and frequent family objections to become the first team from a majority Arab country to qualify.
Vietnam’s team has come as far as any of them. Once shunned, or simply ignored, the Vietnamese women are now national names. They were welcomed by their country’s prime minister after earning their World Cup place in a qualifying tournament in India last year and were given a parade on a double-decker bus through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Their World Cup matches will be broadcast live to their fellow citizens on various platforms.
More than any Vietnamese player, Huynh Nhu, 31, represents possibility and inequality that coexist in her country and, effectively, for women’s soccer worldwide. She is the first female player from Vietnam to play for a club team in Europe, having scored seven goals in the recently completed season for Lank F.C. 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 per month).
That is a stark contrast to the average salary of $200 to $300 per month in the semiprofessional women’s league in Vietnam. On an annualized basis, those salaries remain below the country’s per capita G.D.P. of $3,756.50 a year, according to the World Bank. Players often take second jobs to supplement their incomes. Before moving to Portugal last season, for example, Huynh Nhu operated a business selling coconuts in her rural hometown in the Mekong Delta.
She said that she now had corporate affiliations with Visa, Coca-Cola and LG electronics. And she is the face of the unprecedented news coverage and sponsorship attention currently being lavished on the Vietnamese women’s national team. While away from their clubs and training and participating in international competitions, members of the national team can earn about $850 a month, according to Mai, the national coach. (Journalists said money was deducted for meals and housing.)
Players have also been awarded bonuses by the Vietnamese Football Federation and sponsors for recent triumphs. Not all bonuses are known, and it remains unclear exactly how much of the bonus pool is divided among the players and the coaches. But the publicized pool is equivalent to $8,000 apiece for winning the Southeast Asian Games in May for an eighth time and, according to journalists, $15,000 or more for qualifying for the World Cup. Bonuses are not always financial, either; they can also include motorbikes and cars.
Those figures are “very modest” compared with what top male soccer players can make in salary and endorsements in Vietnam, said Cao Huy Tho, an executive, former sports editor and longtime advocate for gender equity at Tuoi Tre, a leading newspaper in Vietnam. But “it’s very meaningful, life-changing for the women, because most of them come from very poor backgrounds.”
Huynh Nhu’s family, for instance, is building a three-story home, which includes a shrine to her career and appears to be the tallest in the area, in her hometown, Tra Vinh.
Women in Vietnam’s national league who do not play on the national team endure a far more modest existence. League attendance is extremely low, roughly 100 to 300 people per match, journalists said, leaving many businesses reluctant to sponsor teams.
When a team representing Son La Province in northwest Vietnam struggled to maintain sponsorships in recent years, its players’ monthly salaries plummeted to as low as $130 or even $70 — much less than could be earned doing factory work. Some players left for better-paying jobs, and Son La is no longer in the league. Last year, as the club faced disbanding, its coach, Luong Van Chuyen, lamented to an online newspaper that he had only four players available. The others, Luong said, “quit to return home to get married and to become workers.”
The issue of disparate treatment of female soccer players reached the highest levels of government after Vietnam qualified for the Women’s World Cup. In greeting the returning players, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh called them “diamond girls” but also noted that they still faced prejudice in playing what many still consider a man’s game, as well as hardships resulting from precarious incomes and lack of security in retirement.
“We need to pay more attention to women’s football,” Pham said, calling on soccer officials, government agencies and sponsors to help develop a sustainable model for the sport. It is unclear what steps, if any, have been taken to pursue that goal.
Soccer was introduced to Vietnam in 1896 during the French colonial period. The country claims to have fielded Asia’s first women’s team, which played briefly against men in the early 1930s. After the Vietnam War, though, an unofficial prohibition of women’s soccer existed into the early 1990s, according to Cao, the journalist who began covering the sport later that decade.
To circumvent the ban, Cao said, a sympathetic pharmacy executive in Ho Chi Minh City transported female players to matches against men’s teams by hiding them in cargo trucks covered with tarpaulins. When a women’s national team was officially formed in 1997, Nguyen Thi Kim Hong was one of the players who sold bread to maintain their careers.
“It was our passion only; money was never the purpose for the first generation,” said Nguyen, now 51 and the goalkeeper coach for the women’s national team.
Even some of today’s current stars faced resistance from their parents when they began playing. Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy, 29, was the youngest of three children, and though her father had been a soccer player, her parents worried that if she moved away from home in central Vietnam, “nobody will mother you anymore.” Eventually, she said, her father became her biggest supporter.
In February 2022, after Vietnam’s bid for World Cup qualification nearly imploded as the coronavirus ravaged the women’s team, Bich Thuy scored the most important goal in the country’s history — a deft touch with her right foot and a decisive and historic shot with her left in a 2-1 playoff victory over Taiwan, which FIFA refers to as Chinese Taipei. She dedicated the goal to her father, who died in 2016.
“I’m still feeling it now, like a dream,” Bich Thuy said of the goal. “My father always expected a lot of me. I’m sure he would be happy to see that.”
Huynh Nhu, the team’s star, had more unconditional support from her parents. Her father, a former player, began coaching her when she was 3 or 4. Her mother worked in a market in rural Tra Vinh and brought home a soccer ball at Huynh Nhu’s request. Her father said he had attached the ball to a rope to keep her from kicking it into a canal outside the home. Now she leads Vietnam’s national team, with the aim of scoring a goal in the World Cup. That may be, for now, a more achievable goal than expecting to win a game in a group that includes the United States, the Netherlands (the 2019 World Cup runner-up) and Portugal, a fellow debutante that lies just outside the top 20 in the latest world rankings.
Told that the benefactor of Thailand’s team at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, one of the richest women in the country, had exhorted her players by saying, “If you score, 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 contributing reporting from Tra Vinh, Vietnam.
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