Like many Asian teenagers, Ho Phuoc Hoa dreams of playing in the Premiership and a new French academy is bringing his ambition just a little closer.
Using top-class facilities unusual in communist Vietnam, French legend Dominique Rocheteau hopes to groom a golden generation who can take the region by storm and even carve out a career abroad.
Ho, 14, wants to play “firstly for the Vietnamese national team, and secondly to play abroad.” Preferably in England, he says, and for Arsenal.
Ho and 31 fellow trainees are busy honing their craft on four grass pitches and four synthetic mini-pitches, with a separate gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts and weights room in the official Thanh Long sports centre here in the former Saigon.
Each player, specially selected with the help of Vietnamese officials, undergoes two years of pre-training in the hope of being chosen for another three years of full training.
The Scavi-Rocheteau academy, backed and part-owned by the Vietnam Football Federation, is based on France’s Clairefontaine, whose star graduates include ex-Arsenal marskmen Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.
According to Rocheteau, a 1984 European championship winner with France who scored 145 goals in a glittering club career, the young Vietnamese have every chance of making it overseas.
“The aim of the academy is to help the young players progress,” Rocheteau said.
“We’ve taken the best to make them players of a very good standard. We hope most of them will play at the highest level in Vietnam, and why not abroad?”
Thanks to satellite TV and rampant illegal betting, Vietnam is mad about football, especially the English top flight. But the V-League remains about the same level as France’s division three, says academy head coach Henri Atamaniuk.
Widespread corruption has hit hard with six referees and officials jailed for match-fixing last year and seven under-23 national players punished for fixing a game against Myanmar.
However, Rocheteau sees potential in players from the booming country, which turned heads with a run to last year’s Asian Cup quarter-finals.
“In its raw form, Vietnamese football has a lot of the strengths seen in Asian football: eagerness, speed and discipline,” he said.
“But there are a lot of things that need developing, especially tactics but also physique and diet.”
The academy is also benefiting from links with Clairefontaine, whose doctors have helped with medical checks, while a local Vietnamese team provides two assistants, an interpreter and two other officials for the centre.
The young players, who train each afternoon after school with some staying over the weekend, went down 2-0 last week in their first major assignment, against their counterparts from Clairefontaine.
Meanwhile, a team of retired France stars, including Rocheteau and Christian Karembeu, overcame a side of ex-Vietnam players 2-1. It was reckoned to be the first appearance by a French team in communist Vietnam.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Martin Djetou, who scored the second goal. “It was hot and the Vietnamese were very quick.”
Asked about Vietnam’s chances of regional glory, he said: “They learn quickly. We’ll see what happens in the future.”
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