When looking for a parallel to illustrate just how soccer-crazed Vietnam is now — and, frankly, always has been — Texas-born Kansas City resident Lee Nguyen goes to what his birthplace and his city of residence know best: football.

“It’s like Kansas City when the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl,” said Nguyen, who had a three-decade-long professional career spanning stops in Europe, Vietnam and the U.S. “Any time the national team is playing a match, think of it like this: the whole country is in red.”

For the next couple of weeks, from Hanoi all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam will be red. For the first time in the history of the sport, the country will be represented at a World Cup. The Vietnamese women’s national team is one of eight newcomers in the expanded field of 32 national teams at the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand starting this week. Its maiden match comes against the U.S., a juggernaut of the sport and winners of the last two World Cups.

“The women in Vietnam, they’re legends, you know?” said Nguyen, currently an assistant coach for the KC Current in the NWSL. “They’ve created this history. They’re forever the firsts.”

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The importance of such an accomplishment shouldn’t be understated, especially in a country that historically refused to pour the same amount of resources into the women’s game. Since its inception in 1997, the Vietnamese women’s national team has had players take on multiple jobs to sustain a living. Soccer didn’t pay enough then, and it still doesn’t now — as detailed in The New York Times this week, national-team members make about $850 a month when representing the national team. Compare that to their first World Cup opponent, the U.S., which pays players $5,000 for making a gameday roster. Some club teams in Vietnam pay as little as $200 to $300 a month. Members of Ho Chi Minh Women live in the club’s football center in a dormitory-like setup.

Midfielder Thi Thuyet Dung Nguyen opened a restaurant in the Ha Nam province. Forward Pham Hai Yen and midfielder Thi Bich Thuy Nguyen sell clothes and cosmetics online. Even superstar forward and captain Huynh Nhu, the only player playing abroad (in the Portuguese second division), was running a business selling coconuts in her hometown in the Mekong Delta.

“It’s a reality in Vietnam,” said Quang Thinh, a sports reporter in Vietnam for the last decade. “The fans sympathize with the women’s team because of their path.”

Twenty-five years after its first FIFA match, Vietnam qualified for the 2023 World Cup at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India in February 2022. Victories over Chinese Taipei and rival Thailand punched the historic ticket even as a COVID-19 outbreak struck the team. Both Nhu and Bich Thuy would later describe the jubilation as feeling like they wanted to explode with happiness.


🇻🇳 Vietnam qualify for their FIRST-EVER #FIFAWWC!#WAC2022 #OurGoalForAll pic.twitter.com/9svsB7E1zo

— #AsianCup2023 (@afcasiancup) February 6, 2022

Upon returning to Vietnam on the five-hour flight from Mumbai to Hanoi, the women’s team had to quarantine before being allowed to be officially recognized by the country’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Head coach Mai Duc Chung presented the prime minister with a red jersey signed by the entire team. Chinh also said he would allocate about $170,000 to the national team as a bonus for qualifying. Vietnam’s prime minister dubbed this team “The Diamond Girls,” for their perseverance under pressure and Chinh also called on those in the Vietnam Football Federation to use this as a launching pad for more youth academy programs across the country. Chinh also asked sponsors to chip in, too.

In the months since, the national team has been part of a marketing boom. Huynh Nhu is part of a worldwide Coca-Cola ad.

The country’s leading fashion magazine, DEP Magazine, showcased Nhu, Thanh Nha and Hoang Loan in a spread called “the Roses on the Grass.” They’re also being called the “Wonder Women” of Vietnam.

Their inaugural World Cup draw pits them against one of the superteams in the sport, with the U.S. awaiting in the Group E opener Friday, July 21. Wearing his red Vietnam national team jersey, Quang Thinh takes a deep breath when bringing up what he fears.

“Do you remember Thailand?” he asks.

In the 2019 World Cup group stage, the U.S. trounced Thailand 13-0, setting off hot takes questioning the sportsmanship of the American team. Quang Thinh said the emotions of preparation for this tournament have already swung in different directions. Vietnam played Germany tough in a 2-1 friendly loss before falling to Spain in resounding fashion, 9-0.

“Although we qualified for the World Cup, you know the difference in level between the teams,” Quang Thinh said. “Most people don’t expect we can do another shock again, especially in the World Cup. But we just hope we can score one or two goals. Most of us are waiting for the final score.”

Lee Nguyen played for the U.S men’s national team but also finished his club career in Vietnam playing for Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen brushes off the notion of a potential lopsided scoreline as a lack of sportsmanship. Respect for your opponent means that you always play hard, no matter the scoreline, he said.

“People in Vietnam are going to be proud no matter what the result is,” he said. “They can be competitive. They showed it against Germany. I think they know they’re going against the best team in the world. I think they want to be able to keep it close.”

Vietnam has a 50,000-to-1 odds to win this summer’s World Cup. As coach Mai Duc Chung put it, getting to New Zealand was already a miracle that cannot be replicated. Quang Thinh says scoring a goal against the U.S. would be enough to sustain Vietnamese soccer for years to come.

(Photo: NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images)