VIETNAM - Deep in the Vietnamese highlands, an academy teaching youths to play football with no boots or goalkeeper offers a glimmer of hope for a national team plagued by scandal and poor performances.
Handpicked players train for nearly five hours a day in modern facilities at the elite school in the town of Pleiku, which is backed by English Premier League giants Arsenal.
Recruited at around 10 or 11 years old, the players follow the "philosophy" of the JMG sports academies, set up by former French international player Jean-Marc Guillou.
"They start off barefoot - no shoes, no goalkeeper," coach Guillaume Graechen told AFP. He finds it amusing that people are "shocked" by their ways.
The trainees are allowed to lace up their football boots only after they have mastered juggling the ball, which usually takes about five months. The full training lasts seven years.
The method seems to be working for the two intakes of trainees that the HAGL-Arsenal JMG Academy recruited in 2007 and 2009.
"They are on the same level with professionals in Vietnam, even Europe or overseas," said Mr Graechen, who personally selected all 27 students.
"Technically, tactically and intelligently, they are ready to be professional," he said on the sidelines of the playing field, adding that the students had become more confident since playing in a competition in Europe last year.
The resort-like academy, which boosts manicured green pitches, a swimming pool and immaculate villas for the trainees to live in, was set up and funded by Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which also owns an eponymous team in the V-League. It has a partnership with Arsenal, which sends a manager to monitor student development once a year.
The academy "is working very well so far (and) many young players are developing", visiting Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said last week.
Vietnamese football went professional in 2000.
Prior to that, footballers were - like many in the communist country - officially state employees.
"In the late 1980s, players truly played football with devotion," long-time football fan Tran Huy Tuong, from Ho Chi Minh City, said.
Almost immediately after the V-League was set up, it became mired in controversy as allegations of corruption and match-fixing surfaced.
But in Vietnam, the love of the beautiful game dies hard. Football is, by all measures, the most popular sport in this country of some 90 million.
On many Hanoi street corners, young boys can be seen kicking cheap plastic balls - often barefoot - around on the pavement after school, but sports facilities are lacking.
This is why the HAGL academy could prove so crucial to the development of domestic football.
"The fact we've trained them, for seven years, to play together, think together, it will affect Vietnamese football," Mr Graechen said.
"If the core of the best players continue to progress together, they will not need to talk to each other... they will just have to glance at each other to understand."
HAGL, one of Vietnam's largest conglomerates, has recently attracted negative media attention after being identified in a Global Witness report as a driver of land disputes in Cambodia and Laos, due to its extensive rubber plantations there.
Many of HAGL's academy students hope to eventually play for a top-end European club, while others are likely to join V-League teams. Ksor Uc, 17, from a poor Jarai ethnic minority family, hopes to play for Manchester United.
He said: "I also dream of being able to put on the national team shirt and bring glory to Vietnam."
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