TP. Hồ Chí Minh vs. Sông Lam Nghệ An
Thông Nhất Stadium, V.League 1, July 2, 2017
A weekend away of watching football and drinking good beer had been in my plans for some time. Plan A was a trip to South Korea to watch Vietnam at the FIFA U20 World Cup and finally watch some football at Hyochang Park. Plan B was to head south to watch some Vietnamese women’s football in Ho Chi Minh City’s Thông Nhất Stadium, before PVF- an academy team currently producing many of Vietnam’s most talented players- took on SG Mancoms at the dilapidated Củ Chi Stadium. However, passport and visa issues scuppered both plans and I was left searching for Plan C.
2017 has been a big year for Vietnamese football. Not only has there been the country’s maiden FIFA World Cup appearance, but the country’s U23 team hosts their Asian Cup qualifying section, before heading to Kuala Lumpur for the Southeast Asian Games. The Vietnamese Football Federation has done all they can to give these age-group sides the best chance in their respective tournaments, so much so that the 2017 season actually began on December 29, 2016. A week later, V.League 1 began and the first 13 rounds of fixtures were completed by the end of April, a month prior to the start of the U20 World Cup. The league’s final ten rounds of matches don’t begin until early September- after the conclusion of the SEA Games- and run to late November. That meant that there would be just three rounds of V.League 1 football across May, June, July, and August, and, incredibly, the VFF decided all 21 of those fixtures would take place within just eight days.
Happily for me, this gave me my Plan C. For the first of the those three rounds of fixtures, I stayed in Hanoi for the big derby between Hà Nội FC and Hải Phòng FC (and a belated trip to Nam Định FC). Work ruled out the midweek games, but for the last of the three match days I decided to head to Ho Chi Minh City- or Saigon if you prefer- for what would also be the last V.League 1 game of my two-year stay in Vietnam.
The morning of the game began slowly having taken part in a craft beer walking tour the previous day with the good people at Craft Beer Vietnam. The growth in the Vietnamese craft beer scene during my two years here has been impressive (and very welcome!) and Saigon is very much at it’s heart. Our knowledgeable guide Jason led us to five different bars, most of which were brewing their own beers. We sampled around ten and they were great. If you’re in Saigon and like beer, this is definitely a tour worth checking out.
After breakfast at the hotel, I spent the early part of the day wandering the sights of Saigon’s District 1. The highlight was definitely the Reunification Palace. This ‘historical relic’ has been maintained to appear much as it did when North Vietnam tanks burst through its gates during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The influence of another historic period, French colonialism, can also still be seen in many buildings, like City Hall, but it’s modern Saigon that is most visible these days, symbolised above all (literally) by the Bitexco Financial Tower.
By lunchtime, I had already been strolling, according to my Fitbit, for more than 15,000 steps, so I felt I was allowed to try a few more local ales. I left District 1 and headed to Biacraft Artisan Ales in District 3 where I had been told they had the city’s (and the country’s) largest selection of beers. Being slightly further out, we hadn’t visited during the walking tour, but Google Maps said it was just a 20-minute walk from my hotel. It took me a while to choose from the 50 beers on tap, but none of my choices let me down. Neither did the food; some tasty fried chicken with particularly spicy dipping sauce and barramundi ceviche. I sampled a few beers before walking back to the hotel and on to the match.
At around 4pm, I took a Grab Bike out to Thông Nhất Stadium. Out in the city’s District 10, the stadium was known as Cộng Hòa Stadium until 1975 and was the home ground of the South Vietnam’s national team. In 1963, it played host to an Asian Cup qualifying group featuring Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, and the hosts. Four years later, it hosted an eight-team ‘friendship tournament’ which was won by Australia and which was the subject of an excellent 2011 Blizzard article. Today, as well as hosting two V.League 1 teams, it competes with Hanoi’s Mỹ Đình to host Vietnam’s home matches.
I had got there a little early hoping to grab a beer and enjoy the pre-match atmosphere generated by Sông Lam Nghệ An’s famous travelling fans. Not that many of them had travelled far; many Nghệ An fans are migrants who have moved from the relatively poor northern province, birthplace of Hồ Chí Minh himself, to the larger cities. Their team hasn’t given them much to celebrate since winning V.League 1 in 2011, but the fans rightly remain proud of the only team to have played in the top-flight every season since it turned professional in 2000. This pride was very evident with large huddles of yellow-shirted supporters all around the ground and it wasn’t long before the horn-blasting, flag-waving parade of scooters and motorbikes arrived.
I worked my way through the hordes to the pub where the HCMC FC UK Supporters Club have their pre-game beers, but there was no sign of them. Still, I enjoyed a cold Saigon Special and watched as more and more Nghệ An fans arrived. By the time I crossed the street and entered the ground, the away fans were already on their way to filling the end behind the goal to my right, with decent numbers also in the opposite end. Home support was less numerous at this stage, but the uncovered B Stand where I was sitting was slowly beginning to fill up.
Having won last year’s V.League 2, T.P. Hồ Chí Minh are in their first V.League 1 campaign since 2009. Like Nghệ An, however, they are a team with history and, as Sài Gòn Port FC, were Vietnamese champions on four occasions, most recently in the 2001-02 season. Since promotion, the club has shown an ambition to return to those kind of heights. Firstly, they appointed recently retired Lê Công Vinh, the Vietnamese national team’s record cap-holder and goalscorer, to a sort of Sporting Director role. He brought with him ex-international colleagues Trương Đình Luật and Âu Văn Hoàn and his fame was able to attract two of the top performing foreign players in the previous season’s V.league 1, Victor Ormazabal from champions Hà Nội FC and Rod Dyachenko from cup winners Than Quảng Ninh. Finally, they appointed Frenchman Alain Fiard as manager, one of only two foreigners currently managing in V.League 1.
And the plan is working. Attendances are up from last season’s 1,000-2,000 to an average of over 5,000 before this game (considerably more than city rivals Sài Gòn FC, whose average of just under 3,000 owes much to the 5,000 who attended the season’s first derby when TP.HCM were officially the away team). Expectation has risen such that Công Vinh recently had to negotiate with angry home supporters when a second-string XI found themselves 3-0 at half-time to Nghệ An during a cup game. That game ended 4-0 and the tie 7-1 on aggregate, so this match at least presented a chance for revenge.
As kick-off approached, I was joined by a German spectator, but when he set off in search of a home jersey, I moved to sit with two lads wearing England and Ireland shirts respectively; being in my Welsh shirt, I hoped this might be the opening line of a future bad joke.
The game’s opening exchanges were uninteresting, but TP.HCM were shading it. Things changed quickly when Trần Nguyên Mạnh, a goalkeeper I like who has recently lost his place as national team Number 1, claimed a corner and launched a counter-attack. His clearance found quick-footed playmaker Trần Phi Sơn, who beat two defenders and squared for Nguyễn Văn Vinh to open the scoring.
TP.HCM continued to attack and new Mauritanian signing, striker Dominique Da Sylva, went close to a third free-kick goal in three games. The equaliser came a few minutes later when a long ball was flicked on into the box and a low cross was prodded in by Đặng Văn Robert, who, in a nice Lost Boyos twist, is half-Slovakian, half-Vietnamese.
Half-time: T.P. Ho Chi Minh 1-1 Song Lam Nghe An
At half-time, I spotted the HCMCFCUKSC- an acronym I hope they adopt- and joined them. We went in search of beer, but found none, meaning I couldn’t return the favour to the English and Irish lads who had bought me first half beers; my apologies if you’re reading this. Bill had recommended the bánh mì at Thông Nhất, so I was happy to at least score one of those, and it was very good.
The first part of the second half was largely about Dominique Da Sylva. Despite his debut brace of free-kicks, the supporters club guys seemed unimpressed with their new signing. He’s certainly not blessed with blistering pace and was twice thwarted by Nguyên Mạnh in the opening 20 minutes or so. The first chance he had done well to fashion for himself, but the second, a clear one-on-one, he should have done better with. In between, however, his strength had created a second goal for TP.HCM. Outmuscling a defender, he poked the ball into the path of Nguyễn Hồng Việt, who finished into an empty net.
Nghệ An introduced their own new signing, Montenegrin Danko Kovacevic, and began playing more direct, but TP.HCM seemed in control. The supporters club guys knew better and weren’t too surprised when, in the 86th minute, Phan Văn Đức scored a low diving header. His shirtless celebrations earned him a yellow card.
The final minutes, as often happens in the V.League, got a bit silly, with little squirmishes and mysterious cramps. It had been a decent game up to then, so it was a disappointing way to end. With neither team threatened by relegation and a draw doing little to improve either team’s league position- TP.HCM remained 9th, while SLNA moved up one spot to 10th- it would have been nice to see some late drama.
Full-time: T.P. Ho Chi Minh 2-2 Song Lam Nghe An
We headed back across the road for a couple of Saigon Specials, before all going our separate ways. I got my Grab Bike to drop me off at East West Brewing, one of the places we’d visited on the walking tour, for one (okay, two) final local craft brews and here, I was able to reflect on the weekend and the end of my time watching V.League 1.
This had been a decent game and a great crowd, officially an attendance of 15,000. From the scooter parade to TP.HCM’s brass and drum section, much of the best of V.League fan culture was on show. On the field, there were goals, moments of class, and plenty of ineffectual play. There was the constant cramp. There was everything you usually find in this often mad and occasionally maddening league. I’m going to miss it.
Good: Ho Chi Minh City’s great beer scene; decent game of football; great support for both teams
Bad: Round number attendances; goalkeepers with cramp