Ha Noi FC 4-0 Phu Yen
Hang Day Stadium, V.League 2, 15th August 2015
Hanoi T&T 2-2 Becamex Binh Duong
Hang Day Stadium, V.League 1, 16th August 2015
Death and divorce are often cited as the only things more stressful than moving, but this is not really backed up by any evidence. Those researchers, I’d guess, likely never moved from Spain to Vietnam. After accepting work in the Vietnamese capital, it was a long and often stressful journey to our eventual arrival in Hanoi. Our first week was thankfully more straightforward and we were able to find a place to live and run a lot of our administrative errands. All that was left was to choose a football team.
There’s not a great deal written in English online about football in Vietnam. There are the usual starting points- Wikipedia, Soccerway, etc- and I found a couple of English language Twitter accounts. I’ve learned- to the best of my knowledge- that three teams from the city play in Vietnam’s top two divisions: Hanoi T&T in V.League 1 and Ha Noi FC and Cong An Nhan Dan in V.League 2.
T&T- named after the company that owns them- have existed since 2006 and have already been crowned champions twice. They entered an U21 in the V.League 2 in 2011 which eventually became Ha Noi FC, when they were sold to another company in 2013. Cong An Nhan Dan are the police team and I only recently learned they were based in Hanoi from the Vietnam Football blog.
On my first proper (i.e. not jet-lagged) weekend in Hanoi, both T&T and Ha Noi were playing at home. I’d been following both leagues for a few months and knew Ha Noi were leading V.League 2, but I hadn’t realised how close they were to the title. This was the twelfth game of a very short 14-game season and from Twitter I learned that defeats for Hue and Ho Chi Minh City coupled with a Ha Noi win, would see one of my new local teams seal promotion and win the league.
Sunday night was another top of the table clash, this time in V.League 1. Becamex Binh Duong, reigning champions and current league leaders, were in town to face Hanoi T&T, who themselves still harbour slim hopes of AFC Champions League qualification.
Among the many reasons why I would make a terrible football scout, is that I’m not very good at seeing individual football games outside of their own context. As a mere spectator, however, this generally adds to my own enjoyment of matches. Others do like to compare, though (plenty of locals and visitors to East Asia eschew local leagues because it’s not as good as what they can see on TV or at home), and given that a bit of context is generally useful, I did look around to see where Vietnam fits in the world game.
Well, for a global context, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics- if you put any stock in what they say- don’t tell you how they come up their ranking, but will tell you they rank the V.League at 100 in the world (the Welsh Premier League is 107). The Vietnamese national team, including four players from the top-tier game I saw, recently hosted Manchester City and lost 8-1. For a more regional context, Hanoi T&T lost 7-0 to FC Seoul in an AFC Champions League qualifying round, while group stage representatives Becamex Binh Duong lost four of their six group stage games (winning and a drawing the other two at home to Kashiwa Reysol and Jeonbuk Hyundai resepectively). I’m not sure what, if anything at all, I learned from all this, but it was a starting point in my understanding of Vietnamese football.
Hanoi is not a walking city- pavements are sparse and it’s very, very hot- so it was perhaps a little foolish of me to walk the five-and-a-bit kilometres from my hotel to the stadium. That meant walking around Tay Ho (West Lake) and along some of the city’s wider, tree-lined streets. A week has been enough to get used to Hanoi’s unique methods of crossing the road and, even in the heat, it was a fairly pleasant walk.
The first view of the stadium is when the floodlights come into view from Da Binh square, which was nearly empty at this time of day. It wasn’t long before I was on Ngo Hang Chao, but all the entrances on that side of the ground were closed. I made my way around the stadium to Trinh Hoa Duc and there small numbers of people were entering. I couldn’t see anywhere to buy tickets and nobody seemed to be checking those who were entering.
An old man spotted my confusion. I nodded when he asked “Football?” and for 50,000VND he gave me a ticket and showed me in. My 50K had seemingly purchased a place in the section where you usually see local and FIFA dignitaries sit at the biggest games and sure enough, stamped on my ticket was VIP. The big, cosy seats did little for the discomfort of feeling several pairs of eyes staring at you, but I was sure that both they and I would get over it once the game started.
Ha Noi FC appeared from beneath the stand opposite, while the players of Phu Yen were stood around their dugout on my near side. Somewhat unfairly, I thought, they were made to walk across the field to meet the Ha Noi players, only to walk back across the field for the official entrance, marching along to the FIFA anthem. That was followed by the Vietnamese national anthem, and then we were off. To my left in the non-VIP section, a decent-sized group of fans began making a lot of noise. There were all the usual sights and sounds of Asian fan groups: expert drumming, choreographed flag-waving and singing, the occasional high-pitched scream. Their flags and shirts were, like the club crest, pink, but the team plays in white and yellow. Also different was their inclusion of a trumpeter, but he added a nice touch, especially his rendition of ‘Lambada.’ I also liked how the drumming seemed to change with what was happening on the field; for instance, increasing in speed when Ha Noi countered.
One early counter ended with a free-kick just to the right of goal and their Nguyen Quang Hai curled a low shot into the opposite corner. Just before half-time, Nguyen doubled the advantage with a powerful strike from the edge of the box at the end of another counter-attack. Perhaps the drumming was helping.
I considered switching stands for the fans’ section at half-time, but I was over my discomfort and some had provided me with a bottle of water, so I toughed it out with the VIPs. The small amount of phone credit I had been provided by my company was still giving me 3G, but I could find the Hue or HCMC results anywhere.
The floodlights were on for the second half and one Phu Yen defender tested how this was affecting the Ha Noi keeper with a shot from 70 yards, but the ball ended up just over on the roof of the net. One of the features of the game had actually been how excellent Ha Noi’s keeper had been on crosses. From open play, he seemed to catch everything, while on set-plays his punches always went far away from goal. One particular punch started the evening’s third counter-attacking goal. Trinh Duy Long sprinted clear from the halfway line and eventually finished from a very tight angle.
The icing-on-the-cake fourth came when a mis-hit cross from substitute Pham Duc Huy ended up going into the far corner (it might have been a shot, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean this). The game was won, but I still didn’t know whether Ha Noi were champions or not. Either way, the victory means they only need a single point from their final two games to confirm the title.
I took a taxi back to the hotel. I was in my brand new Manchester United shirt, so the driver put the Premier League lunch-time kick-off on. I didn’t know what was being said, but the words ‘goal’ and ‘Lukaku’ told me Everton had scored. The taxi driver offered me a high-five as he was also a United fan and, even though he charged me about double what I’d been paying all week for similar journeys, I returned it.
I was back in a taxi for Sunday evening’s game, as the day’s training at work had been a few hours longer than the Saturday’s. As I opened the car door at the stadium, I was a greeted by a lady shoving tickets in my hand and making hand gestures to indicate the price. After a quick glance along the street, it seemed this was indeed how one purchased tickets. I parted with 100,000VND and crossed the street to the stadium.
Last night’s unguarded entrances were now being manned by groups of young men, standing in piles of torn tickets. My ticket joined the pile as one of the youngsters tore it up completely and ushered me through the gate. The lower tier was already nearly full, so I went upstairs, which also filled up with people, rubbing the yellow seats clean with newspaper before sitting.
Of course, you expect to see people wearing football shirts at a football stadium, but I had forgotten what fun could be had shirt-spotting in an Asian ground. Tonight, sadly, it was mainly the big names on show. Germany and Argentina’s push to the World Cup Final has earned them some Vietnamese fans, while UEFA Champions League success also attracts support; Barcelona, Bayern, Dortmund, PSG and Real Madrid were all there, too. There was a white ‘Sharp Viewcam’ 90s Manchester United, while another was in the very recently released Adidas away shirt. The authenticity is, of course, questionable, but it’s still fun to see. A little diversity was provided by a group of foreigners in Reading, retro Everton, and Euro 96 England.
The pre-game formalities were the same as the previous evening’s, but tonight the floodlights were on from the start. In his all red Adidas kit and wearing #25, Binh Duong’s Marko Simic looked like someone had stuck a racing kit on Thomas Mueller. He’s only recently moved to Vietnam, and made things look easy early on, with a run from deep in his own half right to the T&T penalty area.
T&T had their own direct approach, but theirs generally involved long balls aimed at either at the pace of Hoang Vu Samson or the height of captain Gonzalo Marronkle. Samson’s pace led to the first goal, as he latched on to a long pass and set up Marronkle who blasted into the top corner.
More good work from Simic created the equaliser. A stepover and cross found Nguyen Anh Duc, who scored. For the second night in a row, I saw a direct free-kick go in, Nguyen scoring again to put the visitors ahead. There were several other good first half chances in a game that was pretty end-to-end, with Ugandan international Moses Olaya pulling strings for Binh Duong and the especially impressive Pham Thanh Luong doing the same for T&T.
The second half began with a lady coming around to sell lollipops and more good chances. T&T looked the stronger team in the early stages, while Binh Duong just seemed to want to hang on to their lead; I lost count of just how many times the away physio was called onto the field during the second half.
Samson, a Nigerian-born Vietnamese citizen whose goals in Vietnam once earned him a move to Europe, went close three times. First, he headed narrowly wide and then had a powerful shot superbly saved with a single-handed palm over the bar. His third attempt crashed off the bar, but Pham Van Thanh headed in the rebound.
T&T finished much the stronger. Marronkle had two efforts saved and some neat interplay on the left ended with a shot being fired over. Five minutes of injury-time were shown, but two late goal-mouth scrambles- one at either end- both ended in multiple cramps. It was probably closer to ten extra minutes by the time the referee blew his whistle.
Another taxi took me back to the neighbourhood of my hotel, but tonight meant dinner and drinks to celebrate the end of our induction week and perhaps, with a little arm-twisting, Man City-Chelsea in the pub.
So, did I choose a team? No, not yet. T&T have two more home games, while Ha Noi have just one. Maybe I’ll wait until the new season, when I hope that my irregular work patterns and the fact that most teams are in the south of this long country will still allow me to get around some of the grounds.
If I can’t, I’ll be happy to get to Hang Day when I can. It’s a great old stadium, which over the weekend witnessed plenty of attacking football, some standout performances, and a couple of very good goals. The two good football matches were the perfect end to a week of good people, good weather and good food.
GOOD: great old stadium; eight goals in two games; Asian fan culture; getting to know a new league and football culture; VIP seat; Pham Thanh Luong
BAD: A shame Hanoi’s beer culture hasn’t made into the stadium; a cold beer would have been perfect on the hot evenings