|Vietnamese midfielder Luong Xuan Truong Yonhap|
By John Duerden
Incheon has often been the gateway to Korea and it was through the port city just west of Seoul that the game of soccer was introduced by British sailors in 1882.
Incheon United came into existence in 2004 and has often been open to doing something different. The club looked to Turkey to bring in well-known international Alpay Ozalan in what was a very big deal, though he did not stay too long. In terms of marketing, the club has often tried novel ideas to bring in fans and, on the whole, has been a forward-thinking sporting organization.
The club, financed partly by the city, has never had much success and that helps push it toward doing things a little differently. In 2016, for example, United signed Vietnamese midfielder Luong Xuan Truong. The talented player arrived in a blaze of publicity and soon became a Korean ambassador back to his homeland.
Unfortunately, he rarely played for a struggling team. There have been long-standing prejudices in Korea about Southeast Asian soccer and Southeast Asian soccer players, with the idea being that they are lazy, ill-disciplined and not strong enough to succeed. Xuan Truong never really got the chance to prove the old dinosaurs wrong.
Attitudes should be changing and really should have changed. After all, Vietnam reached the quarterfinal of the Asian Cup, the same stage that South Korea made, only to lose 1-0 to Japan. Southeast Asian teams have defeated K-League teams in the Asian Champions League and Korea also lost to Malaysia at the 2018 Asian Games. Vietnam reached the final of the Asia U-23 Championships and is perhaps the fastest-improving team in Asia.
Korean fans are going to get a glimpse of more Vietnamese talent this coming season as Incheon has signed an even bigger Vietnamese star in the shape of Nguyen Cong Phuong. The forward has just turned 23 but has already played more than 30 times for his country. Don't forget, the national team is coached by Park Hang-seo, one of the recognizable figures in Korean soccer ― the ties are close between the two countries.
Cong Phuong has been likened to a certain Lionel Messi due to his liking and talent for running at defenders and then dancing past them. He also has an eye for goals, both scoring and creating them.
Another graduate of the soccer academy set up by Vietnamese club Hoang Anh Gia Lai and London giant Arsenal, Cong Phuong is fairly small and is going to be targeted by some of the K-League's rougher defenders. He is good enough to deal with this.
It is to be hoped, however, that the player is given the support that he needs on and off the field. Some support in terms of adapting to Korean life and culture would not go amiss and some faith from coaches and teammates can only help.
It is time for another Southeast Asian star in Korea, after the exploits of Thailand's Piyapong Pue-on in the 1980s, and there is no better time and player than now and Nguyen Cong Phuong.