Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his teammates like Abou Diaby and Djibril Cissé went to forge relatively successful careers in Europe, Ludo had an interesting spell in Vietnam.
After all he’s one of the first few players who came to Southeast Asia to play for national teams based on their ancestry. Nowadays you have a slew of such foreign born players playing in the region. Names like English-born La’Vere Lawrence Corbin-Ong who plays for Malaysia, Spanish-born Álvaro Silva who plays for the Philippines, and Dutch-born Stefano Lilipaly who plays for Indonesia come to mind. Yet it wasn’t always the case and even though Ludo did not represent Vietnam, he was the first foreigner of Vietnamese descent to attempt to play for the national football team. In part one of this article, I shall look at his playing career – looking at his time in France, the failed Vietnamese national team trial and his brief but eventful Vietnamese adventure.
Starting his Football Journey with Auxerre and Turning to Vietnam
Just like other French footballers, Ludo embarked on his footballing journey with his local neighborhood team to his Burgundy regional side and then on to AJ Auxerre’s youth teams, rising up the ranks all the way to the Auxerre reserves. At 20, Ludo tore his ACL and was sent to a professional sports therapy and rehabilitation center in Southwest France. It was there when he met Francileudo Santos, a Brazilian-born naturalized Tunisian who played in the 2006 FIFA World Cup with the Tunisian national team. Santos was nursing an injury he had sustained while playing with Ligue 1 club Sochaux.
“We were talking and I got to know him and he got to know me. Then he asked me why I don’t go and play for Vietnam. He told me that I was more Vietnamese than he was Tunisian. Back then, I was 20 years old and I was wondering whether there was actually football in Asia? You know, in the 1990s, Europeans would be thinking if they drew Asian teams for the World Cup, it’s like striking the jackpot. That was then, the thinking, you know. Now, the gap is no longer as wide as it was, but back then you’d be wishing for an Asian team. Santos told me that no matter the country, there is football everywhere.”
Ludo may have dismissed the idea then, but Santos’s words were already planted in his mind. At 23, just as my previous interviews with Frenchmen have demonstrated, Ludo realized that breaking into the first team Auxerre was an almost impossible task. The competition for places were ridiculously stiff. It was at this juncture where Santos’s words resurfaced, and Ludo remembered what the Tunisian forward suggested two years prior.
“I contacted my uncle in Vietnam, who was previously working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. He used to come to France because the Ministry had partnerships with a few [French] Universities. He came pretty often – maybe once or twice a year. So, I mailed him and he told me to wait for him to come to France.”
A few years later, Ludo’s uncle came up to France and met up with him. When Ludo first told his uncle his intention of playing for the Vietnamese national team, he was taken aback at first. However, he helped his nephew out by reaching to some of his contacts within the Vietnamese Football Federation to see if something could be arranged. It was not long after when Ludo departed France for Vietnam to attend a trial and see if he was good enough for the Vietnamese national team. His world was literally going to change overnight.
The Brief Taste of Vietnamese National Team Football
The moment Ludo landed in Vietnam, he was thrusted into a newfound fame. As he exited the plane, Ludo was met by an official from the Vietnamese ministry in the transit area. He welcomed Ludo and (since Ludo knew virtually zero Vietnamese), in French, began to brief Ludo about what was going to happen next.
Waiting outside were 25 journalists who were armed with multiple questions, ready to fire them away at Ludo. It was a big shock to Ludo because, even at Auxerre, there were never that many journalists during press conferences. Ludo was informed to discuss nothing but football and the Frenchman fully concurred. The hype surrounding Ludo was real. After collecting his baggage, he was met by a sea of people who were eagerly awaiting his arrival. After the glamorous first day in Vietnam, Ludo was engaged in a trial period for the subsequent two weeks – something he looks back with fond memories.
“I had my Rolling Stones moment for two weeks. For two weeks, during the trial period, there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese football fans who attended the two exhibition matches I played in. After the match, [the fans] would have scrap books that they would ask me to sign. I felt like Zidane. There was no Instagram back then, if not I think, my Instagram would explode.
“During my first match I played, I scored a header off a corner. And for me, I play on the defensive side (CDM or CB), so it was really huge for me to score a goal. I got on well with most of the guys but then I started to realize different social groups and social hierarchies within the dressing room. There was an older group of players and the younger group of players. I realized that the younger group of players [were subservient to] the older group of players and also that the older group of players could do whatever they want. The Confucian ideal of respecting your elders was very evident.”
The strong influence of the older guard in the Vietnamese national team would come to affect, or so it’s believed, Ludo’s ability to play for Vietnam. Despite what he believed was a relatively successful trial, Ludo was not chosen to represent Vietnam. The Star reported that the VFF spokesman, at the time, Nguyen Lan Trung, told that then head coach Edson Tavares felt that “Casset was not visibly better than any player of the national squad.” Ludo suspects he was never chosen because some of the older players in the squad disliked the fame and attention that he was receiving. Tavares may have had his hands tied behind his back – we may never know.
During his short spell in the national team set up, Ludo believed that the Vietnamese internationals he played alongside were really good technically. What they lacked instead was tactical ability. Ludo still finds it shame that he never got to represent Vietnam. However, his trip to the state was not a total waste. While the Vietnamese Football Federation may have rejected him, Vietnamese clubs began to take notice of a young Ludo. One in particular, Quảng Nam Đà Nẵng (now known as SHB Đà Nẵng) , reached out with an offer which kickstarted a new chapter in his footballing career.
The Professional Dream with Đà Nẵng – A Mixed First Season
Ludo was brought into a Đà Nẵng side that was in the process of building up a super team. The Frenchman was brought in alongside 4 other national team stalwarts, including the captain, Lê Huỳnh Đức (who is current coaching SHB Đà Nẵng) , that he played alongside during his trial. Besides the financial allure of Đà Nẵng, the late mayor of Đà Nẵng City, Nguyen Ba Thanh, played a crucial role in Ludo’s transfer to the club. He had significant influence over the club because of his status as a powerful politician. He was the one that promised Ludo that he would try to push for him gaining Vietnamese nationality if he signed with Đà Nẵng. While Vietnam has permitted dual nationality in limited circumstances in 2009, it was forbidden for one to have dual nationality back in 2005.
Ludo was given a month to think about the offer from Đà Nẵng, and he went back to Auxerre. Back home in France, Ludo seriously reflected on the offer. He was hesitating to take up the offer since he still had the dream to play in Europe. Then, his Auxerre academy coach told him the reality is of his situation.
“You know in France, there are so many talented players who are better than you. However, because there are only so many places, most of these talented players would never ever end up playing professionally. They’d reach 26 and 27 [years old] and then they’d be the stars of their neighbourhood teams and that’s it. I told myself let’s go to Vietnam and get the exposure. After all, the future is in Asia.”
Back then, the V.League had a foreign import quota of 5 players, but they also had a rule where only 3 players could be on the pitch at any one time. This meant that if one foreign player was to be brought off the bench, one of the three foreigners on the pitch had to be subbed off. With his opportunity already limited by the foreign player rules, a rocky start with his then head coach meant that playing time was seriously limited for a young Ludo.
“The coach was really old school, and it was during their first pre-season training but for me, I had been playing (in France and the trial in Vietnam) all the way till moving to Đà Nẵng. So during some of the drills I had a bit of pain and I told the interpreter to inform the coach that I would do some light training instead. I realized that it was a clash of cultures. In Vietnam, players were expected to play through the pain, whereas in Europe, they expected you to rest and not make the injury worse. And after that, that’s it – my season was over. The coach thought that I was lazy because of the fame I had received during the trial with the national team. They started to play without me.”
During the first half of the season, Ludo played zero matches. Then a miracle happened. After 4 to 5 months, somehow, however, Ludo managed to get dual nationality, and to his knowledge, is the first person to hold dual nationality in Vietnam.
After becoming a Vietnamese citizen and the club registering as a local player, Ludo managed to play a few games. There were other obstacles standing in Ludo’s way – behind the scene politics within his own team. One day, Ludo had decided to go to an infamous bar in the city, and he happened to bump into one of the younger players of the squad and drank together. It would become a mistake that he would long regret.
“The next morning, I go to training and I had this African teammate who had been playing in Vietnam for 8 years. And he told me – just see what happens. You will have [issues]. So, I found out much later that the young player went to the coach and said he heard from a friend that I was out partying. But, it was actually him who was there with me in the bar! And so, I got excluded from selection because the coach believed I liked to party more than train.”
Besides finding his playing time limited, Ludo also experienced what allegedly was a case of match-fixing. Back then, it was a game against Saigon. Saigon needed a win to remain in the Vietnamese top division. On the other hand, Đà Nẵng were already guaranteed of their AFC Champions League place regardless of the result. Perhaps that was why a large number of key players were taken out of the game. However, according to Ludo, the match “played out weird” and Đà Nẵng eventually succumbed to defeat. Then the young Frenchman was in for a huge shock.
“The Stadium was packed with 40,000 fans. A lot of them had been drinking beer and thousands of fans threw their beer cans at the pitch. We were trapped we couldn’t leave the stadium. So the (officials) used the electric (batons) and started hitting the fans to help manage the situation and bring this ruckus to a close. I was wondering why this was happening. One of the players heard that the match was sold, which explained why we were playing weird. I didn’t know what was happening back then. It was truly a new experience for me.”
The season ended on a high for Ludo, as Đà Nẵng managed to qualify for the AFC Champions League and the head coach resigned. A new technical director, Gerd Zeise from Germany, took over instead. Interestingly, Zeise would go on to manage the Myanmar U-20 team and lead them to qualification for the U-20 World Cup. He would later go on to manage the Myanmar national team after the departure of Radojko Avramović, the former Singapore national team head coach who won 3 AFF Championships with the Lions.
Things were seemingly looking up for him, but then he was sent out on loan to a V2.League club. Ludo was devastated because there was a huge gulf in quality between the V1 and V2 leagues. Fortunately, the club recalled him back soon. The club used Ludo sporadically in the league, but he featured prominently in the Champions League.
In Đà Nẵng’s AFC Champions League group, they were tied together with some titans of East Asian football – Gamba Osaka, Dalian Shide and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The most memorable moment of that Champions League Group stage would probably be one of Ludo’s most painful ones. His side was thrashed by Gamba Osaka in Japan and it was truly a dark day in Ludo’s career.
“In the first match, we played really well and we received a lot of media attention. In the second match against Gamba Osaka in Japan. It was really really cold and raining. I was used to it but the Vietnamese players were not used to this kind of conditions. Gamba Osaka thrashed us so severely and it was so embarrassing. Every attack against us they scored. It was so bad. Perhaps it was because of the media attention we received and it sort of backfired because Osaka came out for blood and they took us really seriously. So much so, they were merciless. ”
Ludo’s time in Vietnam would come to an end after that season in 2006. After 2 and a half years in Vietnam, it was time to bring his episode in the country to a close. In part 2, I’ll look at the end of Ludo’s playing career and how he landed the director position at Etoile FC Academy.
Featured Image provided by Ludovic Casset. Photo Credits: Ludovic Casset
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