Time for Vietnam's golden generation to deliver on the big stage

Nguyen Quang Hai has arguably been the brightest spark of a talented crop of Vietnam players that have been dubbed the nation's footballing "golden generation". Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

Throughout the history of football, very few national teams have had the privilege of boasting exceptionally gifted talents breaking through at the same time.

Having a prodigious group of players is one thing, delivering on its potential is a completely different matter.

With Vietnam on the brink of going the furthest they have ever gone in the quest to reach the FIFA World Cup, there is no better time for their golden generation to shine than on Tuesday when they take on the United Arab Emirates.

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Labelling any group as the "golden generation" is going to be subjective, so what makes the current Vietnamese cohort so special?

It began in January 2018 when they reached the final of the AFC U-23 Championship and beating teams like Australia, Iraq and Qatar in the process.

They backed that up at senior level at the end of that year, ending a decade-long wait to be crowned champions of Southeast Asia for a second time when they won the AFF Suzuki Cup, despite having a squad with an average age of just 23.7 years.

A month later, they were making their first AFC Asian Cup appearance in 12 years and again proved they had the mettle to go with their talent. They progressed out of a tough group that included heavyweights Iran and Iraq and then beat Jordan in the Round of 16 before narrowly bowing out at the hands of mighty Japan.

But the Vietnamese could arguably surpass all those achievements tonight. Anything other than defeat to the Emiratis will seal the top spot in Group G of the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup and secures progress to the final stage for the first time ever -- along with a guaranteed berth at the next Asian Cup in 2023.

Befitting their golden-generation status, it is impossible to single out one or two individuals who could be most influential in their hopes of marching on.

It was always easy to identify key players in prior squads -- and that often played into the hands of their opponents too. Most recently, players like Le Cong Vinh and Nguyen Van Quyet were the barometers of Vietnam's success.

Perhaps the closest thing to a star man in the current side is Nguyen Quang Hai but, when the left-footed playmaker was ruled out of the last match against Malaysia on Friday, Vietnam had many players step in the critical 2-1 win.

Nguyen Tien Linh continues to suggest he could be Cong Vinh's successor as the focal point in attack. Do Duy Manh and Doan Van Hau look like they will be mainstays in defence for the next decade.

And even Nguyen Cong Phuong and Luong Xuan Truong, who were the first two to emerge from the golden generation but have since seen their careers taper off slightly, are still only 26 and have plenty of time to get back on track.

Plenty of credit has to go to Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo, who was appointed without much fanfare in 2017. His claim to fame then was being assistant to Guus Hiddink when the Dutchman led Korea Republic all the way to fourth place at the 2002 World Cup.

Suffice to say, Park can -- and is -- now viewed as a fine tactician in his own right.

Of course, history has shown that golden generations do not always guarantee greatness.

Both Portugal, who had Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Fernando Couto all come through at the same time, and an England outfit that boasted Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, are widely regarded to have underachieved during their respective talent-filled eras.

The current Belgium side -- ranked number one in the world -- are still looking for their first major piece of silverware with global stars like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

Even in the distant future, Vietnam are unlikely to be challenging to win the World Cup but for an unfancied Southeast Asian nation, qualifying for one would already be a huge achievement.

If anyone is going to do it, it would be the golden generation.