Truong Anh Ngoc, a Vietnamese journalist.
Vietnam just might be the most football-crazy country in the world.
My friend Paul, an English journalist, said this often.
“I love how Vietnam loves its football. It’s passionate, ardent and sincere,” he would say.
As one who has traveled to every corner of the world, his words were flattering. Paul must have been to some of the most football-crazy countries out there, like Argentina, Brazil, or Italy, for example. But he thought Vietnam was the most fervent of them all.
Paul had seen how Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were festooned in red and gold as national flags fluttered everywhere, how the people’s laughter, screams and honks of their motorbikes concocted a beautiful cacophony that reverberated through the night. He was here when Vietnam’s U23 football team executed consecutive “miracles” at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in Changzhou, China earlier this January.
While the festivities showed Paul that the Vietnamese loved football, it took him a while to understand where that love came from, especially considering how our national teams never made it to the World Cup, or any global stage for that matter.
Reaching the semifinals of the AFC Championship changed everything. The unprecedented feat showed that Vietnamese football was finally ready to tread beyond Asian borders and get noticed along with many giants of the sport.
But there was something far more important happening.
Our 20-something footballers had revived hope in Vietnam’s scandal-infested football scene, scandals that made even the most loyal fans walk away in disappointment, even shame.
Vietnam’s football scene had been down in the dumps, popularity-wise, its fanbase dwindling as people became disillusioned with how the sport had devolved into an antithesis of sportsmanship and fair play.
Local media was abuzz with a betting and match-fixing scandal during the 2005 SEA Games in the Philippines, a fraud committed by the then-U23 team with vice-captain Le Quoc Vuong as the mastermind. Vuong and his teammates received VND490 million ($22,000) from betting on and fixing a match with Myanmar, investigations found. The scandal destroyed several team members’ careers, including the then star striker Pham Van Quyen, once known as Vietnamese football’s “Golden Boy.”
The scandal shattered the public image of the national football team, as well as the sport itself. It was one of several incidents that made Vietnamese football fans turn their backs against the very sport they loved so much. People no longer came to stadiums as much as they used to. No flags were waved, no banners were raised. Our national football scene was all but left for dead.
Until these boys came along.
Hanoi burns bright on Monday night after Vietnam won against Syria during the 2018 Asian Games football quarterfinal. Photo by Ba Do
This new generation of footballers has been the long-awaited rain that can revive the barren desert that Vietnamese football had become.
And the X-factor in the revival of interest and pride in the achievements of the new U23 team has been South Korean coach Park Hang-seo. Under his tutelage, Vietnam’s U23 team has gone from strength to strength, culminating in getting to the AFC Championship final versus Uzbekistan in March, and just days ago, their win against Syria during the Asian Games quarterfinal.
Vietnamese fans have seen that these boys are fueled by the fire of their youth, and are not driven by personal gain. There is a purity to this that has energized the nation, going back to those days before some misguided youth tainted the beloved sport. It has enabled fans to lose themselves in the game, hold their breath before a penalty and leap for joy after a goal.
Real football is back.
There are less empty seats in stadiums now. Random screams of relief and exhilaration can be heard in the streets during games as families and friends gather around TV sets and projector screens to watch their beloved football team giving it their all on their field.
I’ve missed this vibe and am glad it is back.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Vietnam U23 football team will face South Korea, the defending champions, in one of the Asian Games semifinal matches. If they win, and I hope they do, the towns will surely be dyed in red and gold again, and the Vietnamese cacophony will break loose.
But, this time, even if they lose, we have won.
The next time I see Paul, I will tell him that football is simply an intrinsic, authentic part of our lives.
Our faith in our favorite sport has been restored.
*Truong Anh Ngoc is a Vietnamese journalist in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.
Below is how fans across Vietnam burst out in joy after their football team scored the winning goal at the Asiad quarterfinal match with Syria on August 27.
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