Southeast Asia Vietnam

Are Topenland Binh Dinh Challenging the Elite?

It was only two years ago that Nguyen Duc Thang  oversaw his Binh Dinh FC side winning the 2020 V.League 2 title. Now, a new title sponsor, heavy investments, a pandemic, and a cancelled league campaign later, Duc Thang is overseeing his Topenland Binh Dinh side sitting 2nd in the V.League 1 table, four points behind league leaders and title favorites Hanoi FC.

Binh Dinh aren’t exactly the most glamorous of teams in Vietnam, but they do have some pedigree – a bronze medal in the 2006 V.League 1 campaign came after two Vietnamese Cup wins in 2003 and 2004, before a silver medal in the 2007 edition of the cup rounded off the Dark Horses’ golden era in the early 2000s.

2008 saw the start of Binh Dinh’s decline, being relegated out of the top-flight through the play-offs before withdrawing from the league altogether after the 2013 V.League 2 season, with the team’s finances at a nadir. For the 2014 season, Dark Horses restarted from the fourth tier of the Vietnamese footballing pyramid, earning promotion into the third tier at the end of the season. Missing out on promotion to the V.League 2 for two consecutive years, Binh Dinh finally went up in 2017 and in 2020, a 13-year exile from the top-flight was ended after head coach Duc Thang guided Binh Dinh to the V.League 2 title.

The 2021 off-season saw Binh Dinh gaining a vital main sponsor in the form of real estate developer Topenland, who gave the Dark Horses the funds that they need to survive the top flight. Topenland themselves are part of the larger Hung Thinh Land company, the second largest property developer in Vietnam in recent years.

The funds from Topenland enabled Binh Dinh to rope in a number of quality signings in the 2021 off-season. Ho Tan Tai was enticed away from Becamex Binh Duong, Nguyen Xuan Nam was lured away from Ho Chi Minh City FC, while Duong Thanh Hao and Dinh Tien Thanh were roped in from Than Quang Ninh and Hanoi FC respectively. A proven goal-scorer in Rimario Gordon was signed from Hanoi, while former Bali United defender Ahn Byung-keon was signed after an impressive 2020 season at Sai Gon FC. Last but not least, attacking midfielder Hendrio Araujo was brought in from the Spanish lower division side Calvo Sotelo to provide the Dark Horses with a spark of creativity.

An increase in COVID-19 cases within Vietnam meant that the 2021 season was abolished mid-way through, with Binh Dinh sitting mid-table in 8th place. From the 12 games that they’ve played, the Dark Horses recorded 4 wins, 4 draws, and 4 defeats, with the season’s highlights including a 1-0 win away at Hanoi and a 1-0 win at home against 2020 bronze medalists Sai Gon.

With the 2021 season scrapped and the 2022 season now in the horizon, Binh Dinh overhauled their squad once again. The demise of Quang Ninh worked in Binh Dinh’s favor as they managed to snap up a number of the Hero Miner’s key players, with Mac Hong Quan, Nghiem Xuan Tu, and Nguyen Tien Duy joining Thanh Hao at the Dark Horses. Another former Quang Ninh player in Jamaican striker Jermie Lynch was snatched away from Hai Phong FC, with Rimario going the other way. Tien Thanh left to join Dong A Thanh Hoa while Byung-keon rejoined Sai Gon, as another proven goal-scorer in Rafaelson was brought in from SHB Da Nang. Binh Dinh really went nuts in plundering their neighbors, as Ha Duc Chinh and Do Thanh Tinh were also brought in from Da Nang, while German-Vietnamese defender Adriano Schmidt and up-and-coming talent Tran Dinh Trong were brought in from Hai Phong and Hanoi respectively.

A new-look Binh Dinh started off the season with a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Viettel FC, before they bounced back with a successful tour of the Nghe-Tinh region with two wins over Song Lam Nghe An and Hong Linh Ha Tinh. A lengthy break for both the World Cup Qualifiers and the 2021 SEA Games then ensued, before the resumption of the league saw Binh Dinh winning only two of their next seven games.

However, the Dark Horses experienced a turning point on August 12th, six days after their 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Hanoi. On that date, Binh Dinh travelled to a struggling Ho Chi Minh City side and nicked a 2-1 win, with both Jermie and Tan Tai scoring in the dying minutes of the game to recover from a goal down to inflict a painful defeat on the Red Battleship.

Three days afterwards, Binh Dinh announced their biggest signing yet of the season – goalkeeper Dang Van Lam, having spent the last three years abroad at both Thailand’s Muangthong United and Japan’s Cerezo Osaka, is finally going home to Vietnam by signing with the Dark Horses. Van Lam was brought in on a two-year contract as a marquee signing to reinforce Binh Dinh’s defenses, with his wages being the highest at the team.

Following Van Lam’s signing, Binh Dinh climbed their way up the V.League 1 table with home wins over Thanh Hoa and Becamex Binh Duong, the former being beaten 2-1 while the latter were demolished 4-1. The two wins set the stage for last Friday’s trip to league leaders Hanoi, who had only lost once throughout the season and were undefeated at home.

What happened next was nothing short of extraordinary. With Van Lam making his debut for the Dark Horses, the former Muangthong custodian kept his goal clean as Binh Dinh went rampant on Hanoi, thrashing the Capital Team 3-0 on the back of a Rafaelson hat-trick. Both teams ended up playing with only ten men after Binh Dinh’s Jermie and Hanoi’s Do Duy Manh were sent off in the final minutes of the match, but none of that mattered as Binh Dinh’s huge win brought them up to 2nd in the league table, only four points behind Hanoi.

Another repeat of such performance in the remainder of the season and we could see Binh Dinh throwing their gauntlet in the V.League title race, in a league where former superpowers such as Viettel and Hoang Anh Gia Lai are slowly rediscovering their golden touch. Binh Dinh could be another team set to relive their glory days sooner than later.