Orginally published Monday 17 October 2016 for The Guardian. Online.
When I tell a friend I’m going to watch Hanoi T&T FC play he offers up a derisory snort. The local mechanic who fixes my bike shakes his head and mutters something in a tone that suggests derision. A bartender laughs at me. I am clearly not in on the joke. Vietnam is a football-mad country but ask a Vietnamese person if they follow a team here and they blush.
My Airbnb host in Ho Chi Minh City woke up in the early hours to cheer on Manchester United against Southampton, watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic score his first goal in the Premier League. His housemate is an Arsenal fan who showed levels of exasperation equal to that seen in a Highbury boozer as he watched his team play out a thoroughly entertaining 0-0 draw with Leicester City. The gluttonous English Premier League has an appetite which shows no signs of abating.
The Vietnamese Premier League was recently voted the third most corrupt league in the world and its record of bungs, bribes and bent referees has sullied its reputation in the eyes of many locals. Two years ago the club Vissai Ninh Binh wrote to the country’s football association and requested that they be withdrawn from the league after 13 of their players had been involved in match-fixing. Dozens of players, managers and referees have been jailed since the sport turned professional in 2000.
As I walk up to the Hang Day stadium in the nation’s capital city, Hanoi, there are chickens squawking outside as they dodge motorbikes. The polished corporate experience of Old Trafford or the Emirates is a world away. If buildings can be identified by the politics that constructed them, this ground is unmistakably communist – with its concrete structure casting a long shadow in the baking, late afternoon sun. It is painted pastel orange, which fits the slightly washed-out French colonial style of Hanoi.
Punters flow into the ground like a school of fish and ticket touts wave pieces of paper in the air everywhere I look. Hanoi will clinch the title today if they beat FLC Thanh Hoa. Their rivals for the championship, Hai Phong, have to hope Hanoi lose and that they can improve their goal difference by four. Hanoi are favourites and there is a palpable air of tension among the fans present but the ground is nowhere near full.
Hanoi T&T fans gather at the Hang Day Stadium to watch their team.
Manchester United were recently announced as the first football club to gross over £500m in a single year but they won’t be seeing a penny here. The stalls outside the ground sell counterfeit kits with badges that are too large. They are hung next to freshly minted Leicester City shirts – which you suspect were not here this time last year.
Once inside, things become slightly more familiar. The opposition fans do the Poznan before kick-off and a boy a few seats behind me toots on a Vuvuzela. A painting of Vietnamese communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh dominates the stand opposite, and is the centre-point of the whole stadium. The man himself was apparently a fan of the game, but one wonders how the hyper-capitalism of the English Premier League would wash with one of the most revered communists of the 20th century.
If I had the skills required to be a journeyman footballer, I like to think I would play in the obscure leagues of the world: a midfield general in Malta, a left-back in the Lebanon or a star striker in Serbia. Hanoi’s Argentinian No9 Gonzalo Marronkle fits my cult hero criteria. How did he end up playing here? He looks massive when compared to his diminutive Vietnamese team-mates They would call him an old-fashioned centre-forward back in the UK, with a hint of a backhanded compliment.
So the game kicks off and in the opening minutes Marronkle is through one-on-one but manages to perform some sort of tap dance over the ball before scuffing his shot and falling over. It’s a title-deciding game and the crowd react physically to the miss. I began to suspect that the Argentinian’s main attacking strengths start and end with his forehead.
The big striker makes it 1-0 after 20 minutes as he loses his marker at a corner and taps into an empty net. He lumbers around the pitch like one of the water buffalos you come across in the Vietnamese countryside, without any sense of menace or threat. He must be doing something right though: he has been scoring a goal every other game in Vietnam since he arrived here in 2009.
Nguyen Quang Hai, a mercurial 19-year-old with magic feet, gets the Hanoi fans off their seats every time he picks up the ball and starts running with it. Midfielders who dazzle with the ball speak a language football fans appreciate no matter where they are in the world.
Half-time comes and over-runs by nearly 10 minutes for reasons unknown, but comparing this to football in Europe is futile. People run to a different clock in Vietnam, which is actually pretty refreshing when you think about the often predictable and soulless experience of attending a game in the UK. The second half is perhaps most memorable for the five flares that are lit close to each other and at the same time. Realising the logistical difficulties of their plan, the fans throw a couple of the flares on to the pitch, narrowly missing a linesman and Hanoi’s left-back. Nobody seems to mind much.
The big Marronkle meanders through the second half like a man who has truly done his bit. After 70 minutes he collapses to the floor with cramp, like a schoolkid who is desperately trying to have a rest from a cross-country run. He is already my cult hero. In the 94th minute and deep into injury time, my suspicion of his heading ability becomes realised, and he nods in a bullet header for his brace. He’s the man of the match, Hanoi are top of the league and they secure their first title since 2013.
The league is riddled with corruption, but moments such as Nguyen dancing past six defenders or Marronkle hitting a completely unexpected bicycle kick from the edge of the box are football at its most pure. The Vietnamese economy is growing exponentially and the population is going up by a million per season. There is so much untapped potential here for their domestic game. Good footballers are on show, you just hope the league can move on from the scandals that have crippled trust in the results. I watch the Hanoi players lift the trophy and hijack myself on to their glory.