French football coach scores success, happiness in Vietnam

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Guillaume Graechen, coach of the Vietnamese U.19 national team, finds both success and happiness in Vietnam, where he has been living for six years / PHOTO: AFP

Guillaume Graechen, 36, has been living and coaching in Vietnam for six years, but it's only recently that he has shot to fame here as the coach of the Vietnamese under-19 national team.

The team won the second place at the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) U.19 Youth Championship last month, and then became the first to qualify for the final rounds of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U19 Championship earlier this month, impressing even international media.

Graechen has been frequently featured in local media that have given him different nicknames like "the pearl polisher," "the architect," and "the teacher" in recognition of his contributions to the team's success.

Local football fans have voiced their gratitude to the French coach for instilling in his young players not only good skills, but fair play and good behavior - appreciable things in Vietnam, where the sport has been tainted by violence, corruption and other problems.

Injury to international

Graechen's life couldn't be more different now than it was when he began coaching here in 2007.

He had just retired from 14 years as a halfback for second-tier clubs in France due to a serious injury.

He first came to this faraway country to work as a headhunter for JMG Academy a world famous sports organization and training company.

His duty was to train young Vietnamese players at a training institution that was founded that same year by JMG Academy, the English Premier League football club Arsenal, and rubber and property tycoon Doan Nguyen Duc's Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) Group.

Graechen's assignment, however, was not as smooth as it looked.

In fact, when JMG Academy founder Jean-Marc Guillou recommended Graechen for the post with Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, it raised a few eyebrows, given his unimpressive career as a football player and almost no experiences as a coach, according to The Thao (Sports) newspaper.  

But, thanks to the guarantee of Guillou, a former French national player, he was able to secure the post.

Graechen flew to the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, where the HAGL Arsenal JMG Academy is situated on Ham Rong Mountain, Pleiku Town, to start his job.

He spent more than two months traveling around the country hunting for gifted young boys and has been training them ever since.

Many of his first students were selected for the Vietnamese U.19 team in August. They made up the majority of the team that the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) then asked him to coach.

Following the victories, HAGL Group last week announced that Graechen's mission at the HAGL Academy would be extended till 2021, instead of ending next April.

Under JMG Academy regulations, a coach works at one institution for seven years, and has to transfer to another once his term ends.

But, Duc successfully negotiated with the managers of the academy and Arsenal to make the change for Graechen, who wanted to stay here with his Vietnamese wife and their two children, Dan Tri online newspaper quoted the group's representative as saying.

It is also very likely that he will continue as coach of the Vietnamese U.19 team.

VFF General Secretary Ngo Le Bang told the newspaper that with "the strong impression" that Graechen has created, "there is no reason that VFF will not invite him to continue leading the U.19 team."

Father Giom

Many students of the HAGL Academy call Graechen bo Giom (Father Giom; Giom is Vietnamese transcription of his first name), who stands by their side, both literally and figuratively.

When he started his job, the French coach refused to live in a luxury hotel, but insisted on a house that was next to the academy, so that he and his students could be "closer to each other and understand each other."

Indeed, Graechen has become known over the years for not only instructing his players but for doing training exercises with them as well. He also keeps close tabs on their studies.

From the very beginning of his first-ever hunt for young talent across Vietnam, Graechen learned to use chopsticks, and at each locality he visited, he tried local specialties so that he would be able to talk to his students about them, he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

He said learning the culinary culture of each land helped him understand more about its people, or rather his students who hail from there.

According to Graechen, the greatest difficulty that he had during his first years at the academy was that he could not understand what his students said.

Therefore, despite being assisted by an interpreter, he started studying Vietnamese and went on to become a fluent speaker.

"I always think of HAGL Academy's students as my own children," Graechen said.

Of all Graechen's merits, people often talk about how well his students behave toward their teammates and competitors during and after matches, even when they lose.

In fact, the coach himself is already a good example for them.

Last month end, when Vietnam lost to Indonesia at the finale match of the AFF Championship, many fans expressed their anger about a Thai referee's bias in favor of Indonesia. Even VFF Chairman Nguyen Trong Hy claimed that the federation will file a complaint with the AFF.

Meanwhile, Graechen did not respond much.

"That is a right and necessary attitude of commanders," Doan Phu Tan, former chief of VFF's Referee Board, told Bong Da (Football) newspaper.

It shows that the commander respects a game and its rules, as well as respects and trusts people who manage the game, Tan said.

"Professionals do not use external factors as an excuse for their and their teams' weaknesses," he said. "They do not make their players develop a habit of blaming, and feeling worried [about referees] before a match."

Love for Vietnam

As much as he loves and is dedicated to his students, Graechen said in an interview with The Thao & Van Hoa (Sports & Culture) that his "greatest happiness" was marrying his wife Ngo Thi Loan.

"She is a treasure of my life," he said.

Loan, who hails from the central province of Binh Dinh, said they first met when she came to work as a chef for the HAGL Academy nearly five years ago.

They fell in love, although she did not speak French, he not Vietnamese, and both had very limited knowledge of English, she said. And, before they taught each other their native languages and became fluent in them, they mainly communicated with body language.

Married in 2009, Graechen and Loan are now parents of a son born last year and a girl about two months ago.

"I am now a happy man. My work at the academy is going on well, while my family is full of happiness and children's laughs," Graechen told Bong Da (Football) Plus online.

"It is the best thing that one can have in life," he said.

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