The Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) on Tuesday decided to suspend striker Le Cong Vinh for six matches for sarcastically kowtowing to referee Vu Bao Linh in a sixth-round V-League match on Sunday.
Along with the suspension, the leading Hanoi T&T and Vietnam national team striker was also fined VND10 million.
The decision was made based on the league's regulation 39, which says that a footballer will be suspended for six matches and fined VND10 million for insulting another person by using gestures, actions or words.
Vinh, the 2004, 2006 and 2007 Golden Ball winner, made the gesture near the end of the match at Cao Lanh Stadium between hosts Dong Thap and his club because he thought the referee had made a mistake.
Vinh was shocked when Thanh Nien informed him of the news. He said, "The penalty is too harsh. I am shocked and very sad.
"As soon as I did it, I realized it was wrong and apologized immediately. The heavy penalty makes me wonder about my future. I might think of retiring."
Vinh said he was not happy because he found the punishment unfair. When a referee makes a mistake, he can be suspended for two matches at the most. But when a player is wrong, the penalty is more severe, he noted.
Nguyen Hai Huong, head of the VFF's disciplinary committee, said, "The decision was made based on the leagues' regulation 39. Vinh is not a young player. He is mature and has been famous for several years
At Chi Lang Stadium last year (2009), Cong Vinh points at referee Vu Quang Vinh in the face and hurls insults, but the nation's leading striker was not penalized for his behavior then
"He must know that he is a public figure and must be careful about what he does and says.
"Vinh is captain of Hanoi T&T and a member of the national team. He can never display such unacceptable behavior."
Huong said the disciplinary committee made the decision after talking to referee Linh and match supervisor Dang Quang Duong. They also reviewed the video recording of the incident.
Huong said Vinh's actions could badly affect the image of the club and the league, and exert a lot of undue pressure on referees.
It would have been unacceptable even if the referee was wrong, but in this case, the match supervisor said the referee was right, Huong said.
"Vinh has publicly apologized, but that cannot be used to reduce the penalty.
"Last year, Ha Hoang Dam and Hoang Danh Ngoc were each suspended for six matches for respectively swearing at the referee and giving the finger to The Cong fans.
"The two players were young and didn't know all the rules but they were still penalized. Vinh's penalty can't be less severe."
However, Huong said Vinh can appeal against the decision if he wants to.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, Hanoi T&T head coach Phanh Thanh Hung said, "The club hasn't held a meeting to decide on a penalty within the club.
"However, I have talked to Vinh and perhaps Vinh will not appeal the decision. I have also advised Vinh not to have negative thoughts of retiring.
Hung said he had told Vinh to "˜stand up after the fall' and not to make another mistake [deciding to retire] that will badly affect his future.
Hung added that there are only seven matches to go in the first half of the season, so Vinh might return in the second half. He said it would be a big loss for the club.
While Vinh is suspended, the national team will gather on May 02 to prepare for a friendly with German Bundesliga 1 club Frankfurt on May 12.
Vinh is very unlikely to be called up for the team because national team head coach Henrique Calisto has never called a player who is serving a penalty.
Thanh Nien was not able to ask Calisto for his views on the situation because his mobile phone was off on Tuesday.
Nguyen Trong Giap, a VFF official in charge of national teams, said more discussions will be needed on whether or not to call Vinh.
Before VFF met to decide on the penalty on Vinh, he had sent a letter of apology to the public for kowtowing to referee Linh.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, club manager Nguyen Quoc Hoi said the club would have a meeting and impose a severe penalty on Vinh later.
Referee Linh said, "I was shocked at his behavior. Such a situation had never happened to me before.
"Perhaps, it was very hot and his team was losing. But his behavior was unacceptable."
Linh said Vinh phoned him to apologize after the match. Linh said it was brave of Vinh to apologize, but added that he could be severely penalized by the club and the league's organizers.
The incident on Sunday was not the first time Vinh had been "hard" on a referee. In the 10th round of V-League 2008, Vinh insulted referee Do Quoc Hoai during a match at Pleiku Stadium between hosts Hoang Anh Gia Lai and visitors Song Lam Nghe An (Cong Vinh was then playing for Nghe An).
Vinh had sarcastically said, "Hoai, you have done your job very well" at the end of the match. He had claimed that Hoai had badmouthed him.
However, the VFF did not impose any penalty and only held a mediatory meeting between Vinh and Hoai.
Last year, in a 15th-round V-League match at the Chi Lang Stadium between hosts Da Nang and Hanoi T&T, Vinh pointed at referee Vu Quang Vinh in the face.
Vinh also said words that referee Vinh said he couldn't repeat because they were so terrible. However, Cong Vinh was not penalized for that behavior.
Many say Vinh has escaped serious penalties so far because he is a big star. Several other players have been penalized for similar offences, they note.
In 2005, goalkeeper Danh Hoang Tuan of Dong Nai was suspended for one match for kowtowing to the referee in a second-tier First Division match between Dong Nai and Thanh Hoa.
In 2006, central fullback Huy Hoang of Nghe An was suspended for two games and fined VND2 million for kowtowing to referee Dao Van Cuong while hosts Nghe An were playing Tien Giang at the Vinh Stadium.