Football coach Park Hang-seo returned to South Korea over the Lunar New Year, the country’s biggest national holiday. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by a large crowd of Korean reporters at the airport, which attest to the popularity of Park and the Vietnamese national football team in Korea.
The recent string of achievements of the Vietnamese football team at the international stage, such as the U-23 Asian Football Confederation, Asian Games, Suzuki Cup or the East Asian World Cup, and the Asian Cup have brought joy and pride to the people of Vietnam as well as Korea.
Lee Byung-ho, President of Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation
It’s not common for a Korean to coach a foreign national football team, much less common for the Korean-led teams to do so well and be so loved. Vietnam’s second-round match in the Suzuki Cup finals was broadcast live in South Korea and was the night’s top-rated TV event.
On the night of the Vietnam-Japan game for the Asian Cup, a cheering rally was held at Park’s hometown city of Sancheong, Korea. Koreans also rooted for Vietnam’s victory when it made it to the Asian Football Conference U-23 at this time around last year.
Many Koreans are reminded of its own success at the 2002 World Cup hosted at home by Vietnam’s recent advances in football. The Korean football team delivered a strong performance against top-ranking European teams through highly organized tactics, and left a lasting impression in the country’s collective memory. “There is a world of spirit that only Vietnam has,” Park has said, and the Vietnamese footballers are amazing its people with an inspiring unity and fighting spirit.
I once attended the opening ceremony of “K-Food Fair with Vietnam” in Hanoi in June 2018 and coach Park, who was present at the event as the goodwill ambassador for Korean agricultural and food products. The traffic at the site and areas in the vicinity was paralyzed by people coming in to see Park in person.
Park thanked the Vietnamese people for their love for Korean agricultural products at the event. Just as Vietnamese people felt closer to Korea through its football team’s Korean manager Park, Koreans felt closer to Vietnam. Koreans praise Park for being a civilian diplomat, for the mutual friendship between the two countries he has invoked through his role.
In person, Park Hang-seo was very frank, down-to-earth and approachable. Park’s style of leadership is often called the “papa leadership” for his famous anecdotes of friendship with team’s players: how he hugs each player after a game, massages their feet, gives up his business seat for injured players. Many say the reason why Park is so beloved among the Vietnamese is not just his success as a football coach, but his genuine affection for Vietnam and its team.
A Korean company’s CEO, who is friends with Park, sent the Vietnamese football team Korean food such as Bulgogi and Galbi during the Asian Cup. In response to the supportive gesture, Park said in an interview that the Vietnamese players loved the food even more than he did himself. Koreans loved that the Vietnamese footballers enjoyed Korean food. Vietnamese food such as pho and spring rolls also enjoy wide popularity in Korea, and they are becoming even more popular thanks to the recent friendship between the two countries. With the second North Korea-US summit being held in Hanoi, Vietnam, Koreans are hoping for new levels of Korea-Vietnam cooperation.
The “Park Hang-seo Magic” is likely to continue through 2019. There is hardly anything better than sports in bridging countries, and no better medium for friendship than food. Vietnam and Korea, which have supported one another through football, can build on its relationship through exchange of food culture this year.
By Lee Byung-ho