Hải Phòng FC vs Becamex Bình Dương
V.League 1, Lạch Tray Stadium, April 30th 2016
Given the rarity of World Cup winners playing at any given time, Asian football fans have been surprisingly fortunate in the last 25 or so years. If you’ve been a J.League regular during that time, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen a few, such as Guido Buchwald, Pierre Littbarski or any number of Brazil’s 1994 or 2002 winning squads (Brazil’s 1994-winning defender Ronaldao is, I believe, the only Asian-based player to win a World Cup, having played for Shimizu S-Pulse at the time). The Middle East has attracted Marcel Desailly, Fabio Cannavaro, and, currently, Xavi and even football’s most recent attempt at ‘breaking’ India has witnessed post retirement appearances from David Trezeguet, Robert Pires and Roberto Carlos.
Some of the rarer examples include Rivaldo’s two seasons in Uzbekistan or, surprisingly given the league’s wealth, Alberto Gilardino in China. For the rarest example of all, however, you need to look at a spring afternoon back in 2008 in Hai Phong; and the port city was to be my first Vietnamese groundhopping adventure outside of Hanoi.
It’s more than nine months since I moved to Vietnam, but I’ve got several good reasons why it’s taken me this long to escape the capital for a football trip. 1) Vietnam is huge. 2) Except for flying, Vietnamese infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to longer trips when you’re pressed for time. 3) I’ve worked most Saturdays since I arrived. 4) Having had practically no Vietnamese language skills for the whole time I’ve been here, I was worried about get lost or stranded in the provinces.
Given all of that, Haiphong was the obvious choice to dip my feet in the deep water of Vietnamese groundhopping. The city is close to Hanoi and there are regular bus connections. Like many countries, this was a holiday weekend in Vietnam, and I was now confident in at least my use of numbers and directions in Vietnamese. It was time.
I was up early on Saturday morning to put the finishing touches to the Vietnamese football podcast I help put together with veteran V.League-watcher Bill, the Hanoi Football Show. For medical reasons, we’d recorded later than usual, while technical issues delayed putting the finished product together until the Saturday morning. The early start gave me plenty of time to get to Long Bien Station, or Ga Long Bien to give it its Franco-Vietnamese name, in time for the 9:20am train to Hai Phong.
Given it was the first day of a four-day holiday, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that Hanoi’s smaller station was bursting at the seams. As my ticket queue approached the counter, the friendly attendant told me in English I would have to stand for the two and a half-hour journey. I told her I’d take my chances with the bus instead and left the queue, but she shouted after me with her megaphone and told me that she had one soft seat ticket remaining. At just 85,000VND, I took her up on the offer and, with an hour to departure, headed off in search of breakfast.
A pho restaurant I like wasn’t too far away, so I headed there for some chicken noodle soup. I made it back to the station in plenty of time and after a surprisingly cool and calm journey, I disembarked in Haiphong.
We arrived just 20 minutes late and with just short of five hours to kick-off, but my guidebook suggested there was enough to occupy that time. First stop was the Big Man Restaurant, whose menu included porcupine and civet. I’ve sampled civet coffee- or cat-poo-ccino, as it’s sometimes known- but didn’t fancy eating it, instead going for a sensible grilled, peppered beef. The reason for my stop at Big Man, however, was their beer and both light and dark varieties were among the best I’ve enjoyed in Vietnam.
From there, I planned a route that would take in some other bars and some of Haiphong’s few sights. Unfortunately, the bars were either closed or uninviting, so by the time I reached the Opera House, via Haiphong Catholic Church, the kick-off was still almost three hours away.
Plan B involved heading down toward the stadium- another 15-minute walk- where my guidebook said there would be a brewery. As I approached, a familiar song was playing through the stadium’s exterior loudspeakers. My inner nine-year old boy was ready to blub right there on the street as Un’estate Italiana, the true soundtrack to Italia ’90, blared out. Thankfully, the brewery was open and the 35-year old man took control to get safely across the road and into the pub.
The beer, again, was excellent. In the hour or so I sat in the pub, I probably heard the cries of Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato more times than during the whole of that summer 26 years ago as it was repeated over and over and over. I also had my biceps, shoulders and thighs groped several times by locals who, despite the severe encroachment of my personal space, were very friendly. One of the groups goaded me over Manchester United’s fifth place- my tormentor claimed to be a Leicester fan. As the front entrance of the pub turned into a car park and the home team bus was pulling into the ground, I thought I’d better go in search of a ticket.
After parting with 70,000VND (even though the ticket clearly stated 40,000VND), I decided I had time for one more beer. That became two when Haiphong offered up yet another great beer, and by now I really did have to head across to Lạch Tray Stadium.
With a capacity of 28,000, Lạch Tray, built in 1958, is one of the largest stadiums in V.League 1. In 2008, Brazil World Cup winner and one-time world’s most expensive player Denilson signed a short-term deal with Hai Phong. In the second minute of his debut at Lạch Tray, Denilson scored a spectacular free-kick, but this was to be his only goal and, indeed, his only appearance for the club.
The season of the Brazilian’s briefest of brief spells actually turned out to be one of the club’s most successful. Having only jut been promoted, they finished the season in third place. Only once have they done better, finishing as runners-up in 2010, but already look strong favourites to claim their first title in 2016. Going into the this game they had won each of their first seven matches and sat atop V.League 1 with an eight-point lead.
Getting into the ground wasn’t easy. The opposite end of ground already looked full and there was an almighty squeeze to get in through the narrow entrance. Those bigger than average biceps, shoulders and thighs (bigger than the average Vietnamese, at least) got me through the crowd quickly, but most of the seats were already taken and I was left with a concrete step near the top of the upper tier. Others coming in behind me ended up sitting on the steps, while those who didn’t get in were, I assume, shunted into the empty stands behind both goals.
The visitors, reigning V.League 1 champions Bình Dương, have made an inconsistent start to their title defence. With the distractions of the AFC Champions League, they had begun 2016 with three wins, two draws and one defeat. Today, they had Le Cong Vinh back in the starting line-up for the first time in six weeks. The man who is the Vietnam national team’s topscorer and who, until the previous weekend, had been the V.League’s all-time top goal-getter tends to play on the wing for his club. That was where he began the match and this, along with the manager holding up an early throw-in to pass on instructions, were clear signs Bình Dương were in town for a draw.
Chances were few and far between in a first half that was an intense physical and tactical battle. Andre Fagan had possibly the best chance, firing over from the edge of the box after a quarter of an hour.
There had been a good atmosphere, but I think I was expecting more from a crowd reported to be a 28,000 full-house. The Lonely Planet describes Haiphong as having ‘an unhurried air’. This was certainly true, but I think I had been expecting the locals to cut loose inside the ground. Still, a friendly crowd is no bad thing and I had a nice chat at half-time with one local who told me Gareth Bale was his idol and helped confirm my plans for the journey back to Hanoi. Our conversation also helped take my mind off needing to use the toilet; getting there would have been difficult on the crowded steps and would have almost certainly meant losing my seat.
Five minutes into the second half, Fagan should really have opened the scoring. After a goal mouth scramble, he had a near open goal, but hit his shot against one of his players and it ricocheted wide. Hải Phòng were turning the screw and, on 65 minutes, league top scorer Errol Stevens had a good chance with a header from six yards that he put over.
By contrast, Bình Dương created almost nothing. Another frustrating for Le Cong Vinh was summed up in a shambolic last ten minutes. First he was caught offside from his own goalkeeper’s punt, and then blasted a free-kick well over the bar. Fagan had one more late chance, but he also skied his shot. For the second one day in a row, I’d witnessed a goalless draw.
Hải Phòng 0-0 Bình Dương
Neither side will have been too disappointed with the draw. Hải Phòng remained eight points clear at the top, but won’t have enjoyed having their winning start come to an end. For Bình Dương, now eliminated from the AFC Champions League, a win would surely have been the kick their stuttering domestic start needed. It had been an enjoyable game, though. The first half flew by and was played at a high intensity. Things opened up in the second half and Hải Phòng probably should have got one goal.
Exiting was a slow process- with Un’estate still playing through the loudspeakers- but after a short walk away from the main crowd, I was in a taxi heading to Niem Nghia bus station. By 8 o’clock I was on a bus to Hanoi and by 10 I was at Luong Yen bus station in the capital. I’d done it! Haiphong had been a good choice, and with 18 rounds of matches still to play, there’s plenty of football remaining to make up for lost time.
GOOD: big crowd in a decent stadium; excellent beer across the town; a decent game despite being scoreless
BAD: expected a bit more boisterousness from such a large crowd; Binh Duong’s continued mis-use of Le Cong Vinh