Brave Vietnam sunk by late goal in snow-hit final
South-east Asian side held favourites Uzbekistan 1-1 until last minute of extra time
*After extra time. Full time: 1-1.
Vietnam's bravehearts sank in the snow at the AFC Under-23 Championship final on Saturday (Jan 27), going down 2-1 to Uzbekistan in the last minute of extra time.
The match was played on a day when heavy snow had wreaked havoc in southern China, where highways were closed, and train trips and flights were cancelled.
However, officials allowed the continental showpiece at the Changzhou Olympic Sports Centre in the southern Chinese province of Jiangsu to be played, despite the wintry conditions.
The snow-white pitch proved to be a disadvantage for red-clad Vietnam, as it allowed Uzbekistan's players, who wore an all-white strip, to blend into the background.
The Uzbeks adapted faster to the snowing conditions and they got off to a great start after just eight minutes, when Rustamjon Ashurmatov headed a corner kick by Dostonbek Khamdamov past Vietnam goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung.
However, Vietnam equalised four minutes before half-time when Nguyen Quang Hai curled in a free-kick from just outside the box into the top left corner for his fifth goal of the tournament.
Uzbekistan changed to a blue top at the half-time break, which was extended by more than half an hour to allow organisers to clear the layer of snow on the pitch.
The Uzbeks, who had beaten Japan 4-0 and South Korea 4-1 (after extra time) en route to the final, had better scoring opportunities in the second half but Vietnam showed resilience and mental fortitude to keep their opponents at bay.
They also had goalkeeper Bui to thank for bailing them out with some great stops to keep the score at 1-1 at full-time, and for much of extra time.
Just when it looked like the Viets would be heading for their third successive penalty shoot-out, Uzbek substitute Andrey Sidorov hit the winner in the last minute of extra time.
Sidorov scored with his first touch of the game, off another corner by Khamdamov, to break the hearts of the Vietnam team, and their fans watching it live back home, including the tens of thousands at a packed My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi.
Despite the defeat, the Vietnam team, who had beaten the likes of Australia (1-0), Qatar and Iraq (both on penalties) in the tournament, can look forward to a rousing reception when they return home.
They have already been conferred Labour Order, First Class, by Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang on Friday. Star player Nguyen Quang Hai, goalkeeper Bui and head coach Park Hang Seo of South Korea have also been awarded third-class Labour Order.
They can also expect a huge financial windfall. As of Wednesday, government agencies and businesses had pledged a total of US$708,800 (S$931,000) as reward for the team, reported Vietnamese newspaper VnExpress International.