Vietnam risk wasting Nguyen Quang Hai's generational talent

In his spite of his undeniable talent, Nguyen Quang Hai has found it tough to make an impact for Vietnam so far in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

Vietnam's emergence as one of Asian football's up-and-coming sides has seen their fortunes revolve around one man: left-footed wizard Nguyen Quang Hai.

But with the 24-year-old struggling in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup -- Vietnam have lost all four of their matches thus far -- is the country's lack of regular football stymieing his progress?

Quang Hai has played a critical role in Vietnam's achievements since the start of 2018. They were crowned champions of Southeast Asia by winning the AFF Suzuki Cup. They made the quarterfinals of the AFC Asian Cup in their first appearance in 12 years. Now, as one of the continent's final 12 teams in the running to make next year's World Cup, they are at a stage they have never reached before.

His campaign in the third round of qualifiers started brightly enough as he scored their only goal in a 3-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. In two defeats to China PR and Oman over the past fortnight however, he has failed to make a mark.

One reason could be that faced against Asia's elite and tougher competition, coach Park Hang-seo has been more conservative in the attack and that has reduced Quang Hai's opportunities to wreak havoc in the opposition half.

But another issue could be that domestic football in the country has been cancelled for the rest of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It means that Quang Hai -- and the rest of his international colleagues -- are lacking competitive action. Despite his status as one of Southeast Asia's biggest names, he is also at an age where he can still get better with the right factors.

This sentiment was shared by Ong Kim Swee, who led Malaysia to the Southeast Asian Games gold medal in 2011 and was involved in his country's national team setup for the past 12 years.

"At a stage where players are still developing, it is crucial to not only be training regularly but playing competitive matches," Ong told ESPN. "We have the same problem here in Malaysia, where the best young players are not getting regular football and it can severely impact their development -- especially when they're losing almost a year of their careers.

"That is something a lot of countries are facing with the coronavirus pandemic. The usual youth competitions in Malaysia like the President Cup have been cancelled and some of our young prospects have hardly played for a long time now."

Even before coronavirus affected competition schedules all over the world, there was debate as to whether Quang Hai's progress is best served by remaining in Vietnam with Hanoi FC or by playing abroad.

Rhysh Roshan Rai, a former Singaporean professional who featured in the AFC Champions League, echoed these thoughts. He said Quang Hai's situation could have been avoided had he followed Thailand's Chanathip Songkrasin, who moved to Japan to further his career.

"At any stage of a player's career, not playing matches for a prolonged period will have a detrimental effect but even more so in the case of a young player like Quang Hai," Rai told ESPN. "Yes, Vietnam have held training camps but even in those intra-squad matches, you're usually competing against players of a similar level at a lower intensity.

"When you're talking about match fitness or sharpness, making those split-second decisions in high-pressure situations, you can try and replicate that in training but it's never completely the same."

With the V.League 1 not resuming play until 2022, Quang Hai only has a few more Asian qualifiers in November before Vietnam defend their Suzuki Cup crown the following month.

Vietnam will head into the tournament as favourites and there is every chance Quang Hai, who was named the 2018 edition's Most Valuable Player, still lights up the stage. Yet, with Vietnam hoping to continue scaling greater heights in years to come, Quang Hai will need to search for matches at a higher level.

Or just matches for that matter.