A late November report from VNExpress suggested that Hoang Anh Gia Lai have been selected as Vietnam’s sole representative in the 2022 AFC Champions League. Kiatisuk Senamuang’s Mountain Men were the leaders of the 2021 V.League 1 season before it was abolished due to the COVID-19 pandemic in August and having received their ACL license as well as receiving a nomination from the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF), HAGL are set to return to continental action for the first time since 2005.
Underneath the watchful eye of Coach Zico, HAGL managed to turn their fortunes around from an anonymous mid-table dweller to title challengers in the 2021 season. Thanks to a potent combination between HAGL’s golden generation – the likes of Nguyen Cong Phuong, Nguyen Van Toan, Luong Xuan Truong, Nguyen Tuan Anh, and Vu Van Thanh to name a few – as well as a number of astute signings such as Huynh Tuan Linh, Nguyen Huu Tuan, Washington Brandao, and Kim Dong-su, the Mountain Men managed to storm their way into the V.League 1 summit, only for the COVID-caused abolishment of the 2021 season to halt their ascendancy altogether.
However, all of their efforts were rewarded nicely as at the end of November, a VFF proposal suggesting HAGL’s nomination as Vietnam’s representative for the 2022 ACL was accepted by the AFC, securing the Central Highlands-based team’s return to continental competition for the first time in 17 years.
“It’s coming home,” wrote a jubilant Coach Zico in his Facebook, with the Thai legend being one of the players who had represented HAGL the last time they were in the continental scene.
In their last Asian campaign, HAGL were eliminated in the group stage, finishing last as they lost all six games against South Korean giants Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Japanese outfit Jubilo Iwata, and China’s Shenzhen Jianlibao (now Shenzhen FC).
HAGL have started preparations for the upcoming 2022 season, working together with Japanese sportswear company Mizuno for their ACL jerseys as well as renovating the Pleiku Stadium in hopes that it could host ACL games. The Mountain Men are also looking for someone to replace outgoing Serbian defender Damir Memovic to reinforce their backline, while the services of Brandao, Huu Tuan, and Dong-su were retained thanks to their contract extensions.
While HAGL’s ACL participation has been confirmed, it’s still unknown who will represent Vietnam in next year’s AFC Cup. Viettel FC, who were second when the 2021 league season was abolished, are a likely candidate as they too were certified for AFC competitions, while Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh, who were fourth during the league’s abolishment, are likely to accompany the Red Tornado to the AFC Cup as the Knights of Thanh Nam have also received their continental competitions license. Third-placed Than Quang Ninh were overlooked following their recent dissolution.