Vintage Vietnam - The Beautiful Game in full flow
What's the first thing you think of when someone mentions Vietnam? For some, it will be the War. For others, it might be the rivers, the beaches or a hundred and one other things. I've not experienced much of it all so far, but let me tell you a story about how much of a surreal place this is, by telling you what happened last weekend.
On Saturday I was at ??ng Tâm Long An clash against Thanh Hoa and I witnessed by far the most bizarre thing I've ever seen at a football match. I'll come to that shortly. Let me begin with my method of transport to the match.
Now if you're not familiar to South East Asia this will seem completely alien to you, but I took a bike taxi. Not a tuk-tuk as you are probably imagining, but an actual motorbike. You hop on the back and off you go. I underestimated the length of the journey entirely, either that or we went the wrong way because it took over an hour and a half to get there. That's right. 90 minutes on the back of bike. Numb upon arrival would be an understatement.
80p it cost to get it in the ground, can’t see fairer than that and off I went to find my 'station' on where I would do the data scouting. I originally pitched in the middle of the stand (if you can call it that) but second-guessed the black skies overhead and moved right to the back to avoid getting drenched from the imminent downpour.
Ten minutes later, the heavens opened. When it rains, it pours, like nothing you've ever seen. The away fans who were behind the goal to my left were seemingly embracing the rain as if they had just arrived from the Sahara and were insistent on doing the conga up and down the stand. Yeah, that's what we need when it's hammering it down, a rain dance. Pack it in!
The game commenced and it was obvious from the outset which team was at the foot of the table and which was pushing at the right end. It took two minutes for Thanh Hoa to take advantage of a shocking attempt of an offside trap and go one up. At that point I was fearing the worst for Long An, however, much to my surprise, they dug in and got to halftime at 1-0, perhaps unlucky not to be level.
On the second half went, Long An desperately trying to salvage something which would prolong their stay in V-League for another week. They had more of the ball and the majority of the game was spent in Thanh Hoa's half but never really had any gilt-edged opportunities; that was until pandemonium struck in the minute sixty-five of the game. Now I've replayed the moment in my head countless times. I've watched it on YouTube numerous times. Still coming to the same conclusion, I have no idea whatsoever what the officials were playing at. Ready?
The ball was whipped in and duly tucked away to make it 1-1, the home fans celebrated as there was a glimmer of hope that they might stay up. Long An regrouped in their own half and prepared for Thanh Hoa to kick off. Whilst Long An were buzzing off the goal, the away side were remonstrating with the linesman as they thought it should have been offside. Just to make it clear, the ref had given the goal, there was no two ways about it.
What happened next, downright obscene, to say the least, the ref spoke to the linesman, changed his mind and decided to give a free kick. Reiterating my point, he had given the goal, clear as day. He then changed his mind, cue sheer delight from the away team who had turned the goal which would have made it 1-1, to a disallowed goal which meant they stayed 1 up.
The home fans were fuming, to put it mildly, and they were venting their anger towards the officials, suddenly, the welcoming community I had experienced during my time in Vietnam had turned into an angry pack of wild animals. In my opinion, it was only the line of riot police which deterred anyone from running on the pitch and lumping the linesman. Still don't get that, riot police at a game where the attendance is not even over 2,000, most bewildering.
The game sort of fizzled out from there, Thanh Hoa scored a second about ten minutes later after the incident and that was that: ??ng Tâm Long An 0-2 Thanh Hoa. A result which relegated the hosts and sent Thanh Hoa to the summit of the Vietnamese top division, a result which was altered by inept officiating. I'd go as far to say that if Long An's 'goal' had stood then they probably would have gone on to win it. If that had happened, there still would have been a chance of survival, a slim one, but a chance nevertheless.
So that was that, game number one of the weekend done and dusted and off I went back to Ho Chi Minh on the back of another bike. I'll tell you something for nothing, now. We raced back. Took just over 20 minutes off the journey and as far as I know, we didn't change the route. We did, however, go over several potholes. Is that right, over several potholes? Or do you go in potholes? I don't know. Never mind.
Whilst travelling back, players from both sides passed me by, much like me, on bikes. How good is that? I know the level of football is greatly different to that of the Premier League, but, imagine someone like Eden Hazard or Harry Kane going passed you as you made your way home. Crazy. By the time I got home, I was aching all over from being on the bike, duly collapsed and went to bed.
Sunday was Becamex Bình D??ng vs XSKT Can Tho, 12th vs 13th (14 teams in the league). The bottom two go down and with Long An taking one of those spots the night before it is now one from five. Can Tho needed the win to claw the gap back to one point, a draw would suit Becamex as it would mean that Can Tho would need four points from the last three games with a goal difference substantially worse, so really it would be five from three. A daunting task.
The journey to this game was much smoother, it was down, as John Lennon eloquently put it “The Long and Winding Road” which was much more preferable than the nightmare journey to Long An the day before. Got into the ground, ticket cost £2.50! Although, as opposed to sitting on a concrete block, I actually had the luxury of a seat this time round, unallocated, so sit where you please. Off I went and pitched up just to the left of some bloke with a video camera that was all the rage in the early noughties back in the UK.
It was dry today, hallelujah, so as opposed to keeping an eye on the sky to make sure a flash flood wasn’t about to happen, I was taking the rather novel approach in comparison to the previous day and watched the two teams warm up. Becamex to the left and Can Tho to the right. This is where things got a little bit weird. They were doing exactly the same.
The subs were by their respective corner flags playing piggy in the middle, the XI were in pairs in the middle of the pitch doing a combination of short-long range passes, headers etc and the keepers were at the receiving end of shot practice. I don’t spend an awful lot of time watching teams warm up (I will now) normally, I just found this very strange. Very strange, indeed.
I feared for my life after the teams went in for their pre-match team talk, as what can only be described as a daddy long legs on steroids hovered around at the top of the stand. Now, I don’t know whether it was only me that saw it or whether they’re just that common place in Vietnam that nobody batted an eyelid, but everyone seemed rather calm.
Me on the other hand, my blood pressure was through the roof. Focus, Jake. IT WAS GETTING CLOSER. At this point, I’m 99% sure I burst a blood vessel. I’m not normally scared by creatures but when I haven’t got a scooby doo what is coming towards me, I tend to make an exception. So I decided to do the macho thing of shutting my eyes and hoping for the best. Luckily, it worked, the beast was no more! That’s not to say I haven’t been looking over my shoulder every two minutes since. Back to normal, life no longer in danger.
Off the game went, the away fans making noise with their drums and what have you, but the majority of them were sat down. Mark against them in my book. Admittedly, they may be on the verge of going down, but surely that is when your team needs you the most, is it not? For a relegation six-pointer, the opening exchanges were an entertaining affair and it took twenty minutes for the deadlock to be broken. 0-1. Can Tho had a bit of life left in them! Was the great escape on? Halftime arrived with the scoreline unchanged, so maybe it was.
Just after the interval, the Becamex manager decided to take off their holding midfielder who was dictating play for the home side and replaced him with a more forward-thinking player, which would soon prove to be the difference, much to my surprise.
I’m a big believer in doing whatever it takes to win, pushing limits and what have you, but Can Tho’s antics in the second half wound me up no end. I understand that they need the win. But to have players go down with cramp every five minutes is a farce. Time wasting aplenty, as well.
The referee handled it very well from where I was sitting, he booked the keeper for taking an age to take a goal kick (it was the umpteenth time he’d done it) and every time a player went down he got the blokes with the stretcher on, got the player carried off and the game resumed. Well played referee.
With the second half progressing past the halfway mark, Becamex really began to turn the heat up. Wave after wave of attack. The aforementioned substitution was becoming more and more of a menace, I was shocked when he took the midfield man off, but I guess that is why I’m in the stand and the manager is where he is. The ball flashed across the face of the Can Tho goal a few times, but Becamex were struggling to find that oh so important equaliser.
Another three players had hit the deck on the away side due to several different injuries, now I use the term injuries very loosely because from where I was sitting I could have thrown a paper aeroplane at them and they would have required a stretcher. After Can Tho’s capers momentarily seized, the chef finally arrived with a big slice of justice pie. There was a bit of a melee in the away penalty area, the ball went up in the air, it was handled by the right fullback and the ref was in the right place at the right time to award the penalty. Chance to equalise. CHANCE TAKEN. 1-1.
Not much happened after the goal until Becamex were awarded a dangerous free kick in stoppage time. You could tell Can Tho players weren’t happy with the decision and even more displeased at where the Becamex attacker was about to take it from. I could sense it. Fracas imminent. And then it happened.
The ref was manhandling players, the players were manhandling the ref, the players were manhandling the other players, the two benches were getting involved as well, it was a sight to behold and the perfect way to round off two entertaining games. Some good old-fashioned handbags.
In the end, the free kick was taken, nothing happened, the ref blew the whistle then dealt with another spell of expletives from all angles. The away side, naturally dejected, calmed down and shook hands. That was of course apart from Stroppy Sammy who stormed off the pitch kicked a few bottles and cursed the home fans with something that even I understood, I’ll give you a clue, the second word was off. That was the first bit of English I heard at the ground since I had arrived a couple of hours before. Excellent.
I waited around for a bit afterwards to see if there would be any further action between the players, sadly not this weekend.
In conclusion, Long An won’t be plying their trade in the top flight next year and Can Tho are edging ever closer to that trap door, which could potentially slam shut on them after this weekend’s round of fixtures.
I embarked on my journey back home and the realisation hit me that football truly is the beautiful game, no matter where you are in the world.