Ten years after the Vietnam Football Federation cut a deal with the British powerhouse Arsenal FC and opened the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Academy, Vietnam's team emerged from training and underdog status to take second place with a heartbreaking overtime loss at the Under-23 Asian Cup.
Two days after that Jan. 27 game in a snowy Changzhou, China, Vietnam's Civil Aviation Authority (CAC) fined VietJet 44 million VND, or about $2,000, because the Vietnamese soccer team's special flight home included a show by bikini-clad women.
The women appeared on social media, as did the young players. Vietnam, traditionally a modest society, was not amused. Most people saw the players, who wore the country's red and yellow colors as they competed, as national representatives on an international playing field.
Before the match, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the team: "More than 90 million Vietnamese people are behind you, cheering and following your every step." The words were matched in patriotic fervor after the game by football commentator Dang Gia Man who told AFP, "We are proud of the team. … They did a good job in uniting our countrymen."
That unity was apparent Saturday night, as crowds waving the Vietnamese flag flooded into the streets throughout the nation to celebrate the hard-fought 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan. The game remained deadlocked 1-1 until the 119th minute and instantly gave Vietnam, not usually an international sports force, football credibility.
And by taking the long view, Vietnam's national obsession with football, coupled with the Arsenal training deal, had turned a somewhat obscure event into a mini-World Cup as the Under-23 Asian Cup became a big deal.
Vietnam, in a four-team group, placed second in the tournament's initial phase, above higher-ranked Australia. Then, Vietnam defeated Iraq in the quarterfinals and Qatar in the semifinals — a Jan. 23 game so anticipated that many Vietnamese companies sent workers home to watch it, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
"When we won the semifinal, my blood was boiling. I couldn't believe that it really happened," Nguyen Tung Duong, a small-business owner in Hanoi told Reuters. "In that moment, I felt undying love for our motherland."
By Saturday, hundreds of Vietnamese had traveled to China to support the team in the final game against Uzbekistan, thanks to special fast-track visa processing. Many movie theaters decided to show the final match free for fans at home.
"Playing and defeating regional states enhances Vietnam's self-perception of itself," Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Australian Defense Force Academy and former national secretary of the Australian Soccer Referee's Federation, told Reuters.
"Winning at soccer is self-validating. Vietnam has broken out of its Cold War isolation as a member of the socialist camp and joined the Asian Confederation of soccer playing nations," Thayer said.
And with that came scandal.
In issuing the bikini show fines, the CAC noted that although the bikini show had not caused a safety hazard on the VietJet flight, it had "potentially threatened safety."
"I found that reason completely unconvincing," Vo Van Tao, a high-profile Vietnamese reporter, told VOA Vietnamese. "Safety had nothing to do with the show and bikini models."
After the loss that was a victory, the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) canceled the team's 44 tickets on the state-owned Vietnam Airlines and booked a special VietJet flight as part of what state-owned media described as a last-minute "reward plan."
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, CEO of VietJet and the first Vietnamese female billionaire, apologized, saying the onboard performance was spontaneous and not included in the reward plan.
Unmoved, the CAC fined a VietJet executive and a flight attendant 4 million VND ($176) for "neglecting to inform the captain" of the incident.
Vo Van Tao suggested CAC's decision to issue fines stemmed from pressure from the government, which lost revenue from the canceled seats, and social media. This forced authorities to do something about the in-flight antics that Tao described as "normal in other countries, but not normal in Vietnam."
In the context of Vietnamese laws and practices, Tao added, "this case should be under the Ministry of Culture because [the bikini flight] is inappropriate by Vietnamese culture and not related to any aviation standards."
Khanh An contributed to this report which originated on VOA Vietnamese.