Vietnamese football crowned its newest top flight champion on Sunday night as Viettel FC clinched the 2020 V.League 1 title by beating Sai Gon FC 1-0 at the latter’s Thong Nhat Stadium. Bruno Cantanhede continued his consistent scoring form for the Red Tornado by scoring the match’s winning goal, rendering moot city rivals Hanoi FC’s 4-0 demolition job away at Than Quang Ninh.
The final matchweek for the V.League 1’s championship group was played out across Saturday and Sunday, and while Saturday’s matches saw a pair of dead rubbers – Hoang Anh Gia Lai smashing Hong Linh Ha Tinh 3-0 at the Pleiku Stadium and both Becamex Binh Duong and Ho Chi Minh City FC playing out a 1-1 draw at the Thong Nhat – Sunday’s matches saw the final showdown between league leaders Viettel and 2nd placed Hanoi, with the 2020 V.League 1 title at stake. Viettel commanded a 2-point lead over defending champions Hanoi coming into the final matchweek and with Hanoi being the overwhelming favorites in their tie against Quang Ninh and with their own destiny at their own hands, Viettel know that they must win at Sai Gon to ensure that the league title is theirs.
Playing away from home, Viettel decided to approach their opponents cautiously, waiting patiently for an opening to hit Sai Gon on the break whilst at the same time maintaining constant possession over the ball. In the 12th minute, news began to filter in that Hanoi had taken the lead at the Cam Pha Stadium thanks to Nguyen Quang Hai, a news that worry Viettel’s traveling support as a draw at the Thong Nhat would ensure that Hanoi would retain their league title for at least another year.
However, six minutes afterwards, all of those worries were dispelled.
A free-kick from the right was swung into the box by Nguyen Hoang Duc and Bruno managed to pounce at the right moment to head the ball into Pham Van Phong’s goal, giving Viettel the lead much to the delight of the away fans.
Having nicked the all-important goal, Viettel then proceeded to shut up shop, relying on Vietnam internationals Que Ngoc Hai and Bui Tien Dung to safeguard their backline. Goalkeeper Tran Nguyen Manh was also called into action a few times, with the 28-year old pulling off a number of crucial saves to keep Viettel’s title hopes alive.
Viettel fans were kept on the edge of their seats as Hanoi doubled their lead in the 42nd minute courtesy of captain Nguyen Van Quyet, before a Rimario Gordon double in the second half sealed up all three points for the men in purple. However, Viettel soldiered on with an impressive defensive display, despite losing two key players and ending the match with no foreign players at all, a testament on how solid Truong Viet Hoang’s men are throughout the season.
And after the referee had blown the final whistle, the Thong Nhat’s away end bursted into pure pandemonium.
Viettel’s players and staff members celebrated their win as the away fans chanted “The Cong! The Cong!” in reference of Viettel’s former incarnation as The Cong FC, a dominant force of Vietnamese football in the 90s who were owned by the Vietnam People’s Army. A sharp decline in performance saw the Army relinquishing the The Cong brand in 2010, with the team retreating out from the top flight and into the amateur leagues. With the team now underneath the ownership of Viettel Group, the Army-affiliated telecommunications company, Viettel regrouped themselves in the Vietnamese lower leagues as “Viettel Football Center” and slowly made their way back into the top flight, utilizing a crop of talented youngsters to their advantage. The Cong’s supporters from the old days as well as the club’s former players were often seen watching Viettel’s matches, hoping that one day that the team would revive the glory days of old.
And on Sunday, those glorious moments were relived.
Viettel head coach Viet Hoang was a The Cong academy graduate, being part of the team that won the 1998 V.League 1 title – The Cong’s last before their disappearance and subsequent rebrand. And it was fitting that he was the man to lead Viettel into their first league title in 22 years, although many statisticians would argue that Viettel and The Cong’s records should be kept separated. Should one merge the records of Viettel and The Cong together, their 2020 league triumph would be their sixth V.League 1 title, making them the most successful team in the competition outright. However if one separates the records of the two teams from 2010 onwards, then Viettel’s league triumph on Sunday would be their first league title.
Regardless of history and records, Sunday was a day of celebration for the Viettel players, staffs, and fans, as they celebrated triumph in what was one of the most remarkable V.League 1 seasons in recent memory, with the season being postponed a number of times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league format being changed into a mid-season split between the championship group and the relegation group, and a title race that was like no other.
Viettel’s league win meant that they will become the first Vietnamese team since Binh Duong in 2016 to appear in the AFC Champions League group stage, while Hanoi, as league runners-up, would qualify to the 2021 AFC Cup group stage. Since Hanoi also won the 2020 Vietnamese National Cup, the second AFC Cup ticket went to Sai Gon, who finished the season in third place. Like Hanoi, Sai Gon will start their AFC Cup adventure from the group stage – the men in pink’s debut in continental competitions.