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Soccer-Loving Vietnam Looks to Women’s Team to Make History

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No doubt thousands of soccer fans are looking forward to gathering in front of screens across the United States on Friday night to watch the U.S. women’s team take to the pitch in New Zealand for their first match of the 2023 World Cup. It’s the beginning of a chance to make history, as the American players enter as tournament favorites seeking their country’s third title in a row.

But across the world, in Vietnam, the excitement is potentially even greater, as committed soccer fans prepare to rise early on Saturday, given the time difference, for the 8 a.m. kickoff of their country’s own history-making moment.

The Rabbit Hole, an Irish sports bar in Ho Chi Minh City, usually doesn’t open until 3 p.m. But this Saturday, owner Ian Ó Broin says he will be opening the doors at 7.45 a.m., in anticipation of the supporters that will stream in to see Vietnam’s women play in the country’s first-ever World Cup match. “Any time that Vietnam are playing [soccer] internationally, we gather a crowd,” says Ó Broin.

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In Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million people where soccer is known as the “king of sport,” an estimated 75 percent of the population are soccer fans—the highest proportion among Asian countries—compared to just 32 percent of Americans who consider themselves fans of the sport. On occasions when Vietnam performs well at international tournaments, ecstatic fans are known to storm the streets with flags and airhorns, partying late into the night.

“Football seems to be the undying religion in Vietnam,” Huynh Tri Thien, a sports management expert at consultancy Pro Sport Solutions and former sports researcher, tells TIME.

Soccer also holds a special place in the country’s political history, having famously been credited for bridging the gap between the North and South in a newly unified Vietnam in 1976.

Almost 50 years later, the Golden Star Women Warriors, the unofficial nickname given to the women’s national team, have grown into a regional powerhouse, clinching the gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games in May—their fourth consecutive title. Now they’re set to take the country onto the global stage, a feat their male counterparts have yet to achieve.

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“Participating in the World Cup is not only my dream, but the entire team’s. Not just for the women players, but also for the men’s team and the fans,” Huynh Nhu told reporters earlier this month. The 31-year-old star forward is also the country’s first woman to play soccer professionally in Europe, joining Portuguese club ​​Länk FC Vilaverdense last August.

World Cup qualification elevated the status of Vietnamese soccer, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said when he met the women’s team in July, ahead of their departure for New Zealand. But women playing the sport hasn’t always enjoyed the support of the nation, where women’s soccer was unofficially barred until the 1990s and female professionals continue to be paid very little. That’s begun to change with increased success, which has brought new sponsorships and greater remuneration to the national team’s players. But there still remains a lot of room to grow.

“We hope that after this World Cup, the popularity of the women’s football team will increase more,” says Thien. “Can you imagine how good Vietnam’s women’s team could be if it was properly funded?” asked Richard Harcus, another sports consultant, in a 2021 whitepaper about the state of football in Vietnam.

Read More: A Viral French Ad Shows How Women’s Soccer Can Be Just as Exciting as Men’s

At the moment, however, no one—not longtime fans, not even the players themselves—is under any illusions about the challenge that awaits the team at this summer’s tournament.

Vietnam’s Saturday match against the U.S., which marks the first time the two countries have ever played against each other in the sport, is the first of the “super-death” group that also includes 2019 World Cup runner-up Netherlands and FIFA No.21-ranked Portugal. Only two teams will advance to the knockout rounds of the tournament.

Pitted against the world’s best teams, Vietnam’s hopes have already been severely dampened. Since touching down in New Zealand on July 6, the team has lost to Germany, New Zealand, and Spain in friendly warm-up matches—the last of which was a 9-0 thrashing. Team coach Mai Duc Chung said earlier this month that scoring just one goal during the World Cup games would be enough to “make history.”

Even with tempered expectations, many remain excited about watching the Golden Star Women Warriors take the pitch, whether that’s at home—where the matches will be broadcast on free-to-air television—or out on the town. At The Rabbit Hole, bar staff have been briefed to don t-shirts bearing the Vietnamese flag—a signature golden star printed across a red background—as they welcome soccer fans on Saturday.

“I don’t expect too much,” says C. Dung, the administrator of a Facebook page that’s keeping track of the Vietnam team at the World Cup. “I believe the Vietnamese women’s team will play well and be resilient in this match.”

Dung, who will be cheering on the team from his home, adds that there’s already cause to celebrate: “The fact that Vietnamese women’s football can participate in a tournament, a big competition like the World Cup, is something to be very proud of.”

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