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Southeast Asia’s Women Outpace Men in Soccer’s Global Arena

Vietnam and the Philippines are heading to the Women’s World Cup

Southeast Asia’s men have only played one game in the World Cup. Indonesia, competing as the Dutch East Indies, fell to a 6-0 loss against a talented Hungarian team in 1938.

Dutch magazine Sportkroniek came down hard on them: “The actions you make when not in possession are equally as important as those when you are in possession. [These] fellows are still unaware of this fact, for when they don’t have possession of the ball, they tend to do … nothing!”

Wind forward 85 years, and it is the region’s women who are leading the way. Thailand appeared in the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups and there will be two teams representing this soccer-loving area of 650 million at the 32-team tournament co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand that starts on July 20.

Nobody expects Vietnam or the Philippines, with leagues that are semiprofessional at best, to go far in their first appearances. But just being there can help take the sport in their home countries and across the region to the next level.

Vietnam has long loved its men’s team. When the Golden Stars became champions of Southeast Asia in 2018 and reached the final of the 2018 Asia under-23 championships, hundreds of thousands of people crowded the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

But celebrations were far more muted when Vietnam’s women secured their place at the World Cup, partly due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

“The country was very happy and proud of our achievement but as it happened during COVID, unfortunately we couldn’t hold big parties,” star striker Huynh Nhu’ told Nikkei Asia. “A lot of our players had COVID; there were times that we had only a few players for training, so we are extremely proud and happy to qualify for the World Cup. We hope that this is the first of many more to come in the future.”

Vietnam kicks off against world champions, the United States, in Auckland, before meeting Portugal and the Netherlands in its group. “It will definitely be an experience of a lifetime and I’m very excited to play against the best team in the world with top, top players,” said Nhu.

Soccer is Vietnam’s passion, but in the Philippines the world’s most popular sport has traditionally been way behind the “three Bs” of basketball, billiards and boxing. The men, until 2010, were the whipping boys of the region and have yet to come close to a World Cup. This left the women to compete on the global stage and they are now looking forward to playing co-host New Zealand, as well as Switzerland and Norway

The women’s game is only just gathering pace in the country. “The league is amateur,” said TV commentator Ryan Fenix. “The World Cup can obviously mean a lot of exposure, but is currently dwarfed in significance by the FIBA Basketball World Cup, which the Philippines is co-hosting later in the year.”

Forward Sarina Bolden said the team’s trip to the tournament presents a big opportunity.

“I still talk to people today who don’t even know there’s a Philippines women’s national soccer team,” Bolden said. “It’s about the traction. I know being in the World Cup is going to bring a lot of awareness. I hope the younger kids and people of all ages want to get more involved in soccer, and us being on that stage is going to really help.”

It is not just about what happens on the field. Thailand’s appearances had a significant impact on the game in the nation.

“It provided valuable exposure and helped raise the profile of women’s football in the country,” said Matt Riley, author of Thai Football Tales. “It generated increased interest among the general public, media coverage and sponsorship opportunities,”

If the same can happen elsewhere then all in the region will benefit.

In Vietnam, VMG Media has acquired the broadcasting rights to show the games on free-to-air television and, given the time zone-friendly location of Australia and New Zealand, an official told Nikkei that they are expecting significant audiences. Every player at the tournament is guaranteed at least $30,000 in appearance money, a huge amount given the status of most clubs in Vietnam and the Philippines.

“This will hopefully be the platform for it to develop more,” said Vietnam captain Tran Thi Thuy Trang. “In general, Vietnamese women’s football is growing. I hope there will be many more times we can compete in the World Cup. This will give women’s football in the country an even greater chance to gain experience and improve.”

And also lead to better reviews from the international media than eight and a half decades ago.

Source : Nikkei Asia