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While my partner has been on a Thai government work assignment in rural regions near the Laos border to help regional staff to implement child protection policies, I took the opportunity to hop on a flight to Da Nang in Vietnam. The reason? To see two matches in the Round of 16 stage of the Vietnam National Cup competition

Only recently, we shared a short holiday in this wonderful coastal city of almost 1.5 million people in the central part of Vietnam, so it was a privilege to return so unexpectedly soon after.

Being an extended national public holiday long weekend, huge numbers of Vietnamese converged on the region to enjoy a diverse range of festive activities. On most popular beaches, it is hard not to find football being played socially - men, women and children - some with an added healthy competitive edge.

Friday

On Friday, a 75-minute train ride south to Tam Ky on the very efficient VNR Vietnam Railways in some picturesque rural scenery. Friendly exchanges were quickly developed with a father and adult son who were travelling from Hanoi to just north of Saigon over two days. Football was a key element of our conversations along with shared experiences and knowledge covering travel, life and current affairs in our respective home countries.

Arrival in Tam Ky was followed by a 20-minute taxi ride to a low key coastal resort situated on a beautiful beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. Coconut palms, sand-dunes, diverse birdlife, cabin style accommodation, heritage buildings for adaptive use and much more came under the careful management and ownership of a lovely local family in residence.

Fellow guests covered a wide range of international and Vietnamese backgrounds including a yoga master (yogi), a surfer looking for some decent local waves, a fashion designer, photographer, touring motor-biker, families, couples and backpackers.

That evening I enjoyed fine local cuisine including home grown vegetables complemented by locally produced rice wine and a liqueur with delicious cane sugar cordial option.

Saturday

An early morning beach walk was part of my preparation for the first of the weekend matches, between last year’s league one champions Quang Nam and Hoang Anh Gia Lai.

To return into the compact regional city, I took a motorbike taxi with helmet supplied under strictly enforced regulations. Arrival at the Tam Ky stadium was three hours before the 5pm kick off with warm (about 31 degrees) and humid conditions tempered by a moderate easterly breeze from the sea.

My familiarisation was made easier by friendly and helpful local officials and club staff. The language differences were a little challenging at times, and yet readily overcome with mutual patience and good will. Even the Wi-fi connectivity was successfully improvised through some creative shared networks and personal devices into the game.

A personal inspection of the playing surface and freedom of access throughout the entire facilities was facilitated by the producer of live football television coverage, Tran Nhat Thu, who provided me with the necessary ID for the broadcaster. 

One point of amazement was the distribution of free poured new product release beer in plastic glasses for any adult fans who entered through the main gate. This was served by a large team of young women recruited from the local university by the major sponsor of the cup competition Masan Consumer Holdings (MCS), owner of White Lion Beer.

I enjoyed lengthy conversations with Linh Le, CEO of Champion Sports Media, who manages the national sponsorship arrangement. A football fan at heart, this Ho Chi Minh City based professional was passionate about growing the game in his country, and told me that foreign investment from South Korea is huge in Vietnam, as are the increasingly large numbers of tourists. 

With investment in football booming, the Quang Nam club recently turned to real estate giant Dai Viet Group for sponsorship which includes funding for development of an official fans club. They are coached by Hoang Van Phuc, a former Vietnamese international player and national coach.

A full moon rising gave an extra theatrical backdrop for the crowd which eventually reached about 15,000. This included a large travelling fans contingent, across three distinct groups inside the stadium.

Quang Nam ‘active supporters’ were situated on the opposite to the main covered grandstand on the half way line above the players dressing rooms. Apart from flag displays, their chants were enhanced with drums as part of a band that played right through the match.

The game unfolded in absorbing fashion with technical skills of a high standard across the park from both sides. Hoang Anh Gia Lai based in the central inland city of Pleiku is coached by Korean Jung Hae-sung, who was previously assistant coach of their national teams at the 2002 and 2010 World Cup finals.

Despite fluency in the game, the opening goal did not come until the 39th minute from a sublime volley by Nguyen Cong Phuong, a 23-year-old national team player affectionately nicknamed by adoring fans as "Messi Vietnam”.

After half time, the hosts quickly bounced back to take the lead with fine finishes on 51 and 55 minutes by striker, Ha Minh Tuan. The match tightened up, and in the 71st minute the visitors converted a penalty for an equaliser.

However, there was a drama into stoppage time with the Quang Nam goalkeeper bringing down the Hoang Anh striker from behind for a second penalty. The spot kick was drilled in convincingly for an unlikely 2-3 away win, and a place for Hoang Anh Gia Lai in the quarter finals in early June.

In both incidents, the referee was either incredibly lenient or showed poor judgement by not giving a straight red card to both offending players.

While the home crowd filed out in orderly fashion, the visiting supporters continued the exuberance in saluting their team with many screaming girls quite clearly idolising certain players as they left the stadium.

Although a post-game media conference was organised it was not possible to follow the questions or responses without an interpreter. That part concluded with boxes of the promotional beer being handed out to local staff and media accompanied by photo opportunities - definitely an interesting culturally different approach to sponsorship relationships and activities compared with Australia!

Sunday

After an early rise on Sunday to get in some swimming, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of Vietnamese style banana pancakes before catching a train to return to Da Nang. 

A quick check-in to my hotel near the magnificent beachfront was followed by taxi to the Hoa Xuan Stadium for the game between SHB Da Nang and XSKT Can Tho. The stadium is an impressive new facility on the outskirts of the city, which was completed in 2016 and has a capacity of approximately 20,500.

Da Nang FC is owned by the Saigon-Hanoi Commercial Joint Stock Bank (SHB), with the head coach being former Vietnam national team captain Nguyen Minh Phuong. Can Tho FC is based in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam, and coached by Le Viet Hung.

Compared with the previous day, the vibe in the build-up to another 5pm kick off was much less intense. Once again, Tran Nhat Thu assisted with unrestricted access, while club staff organised my Wi-fi coverage and starting list for teams. 

The temperature at the start was 30 degrees with 74 per cent relative humidity and easterly winds from the sea. Disappointingly, for a knockout cup match, the crowd was no more than 4-5,000 spectators.

The home active support was on the half way line. Although in smaller numbers than at the Tam Ky stadium, their flags and banner displays were impressive along with the drums, brass and traditional sounding instruments that featured some familiar sounding football tune adaptations.

The home side took the lead in the 15th minute with a clinical finish by Nguyen Thanh Hai after excellent lead-up play down the left side. The visitors responded with an equaliser only 12 minutes later from a brilliant header by the Brasilian import Wander Luiz Queiroz Dias. Their joy was short lived as Da Nang regained the lead on 28 minutes through Ha Duc Chinh. 

In the second half, Wander Luiz produced another equaliser on 69 minutes in almost bizarre circumstances. This led to a delay of several minutes to the restart as players from the home side remonstrated with match officials about a claimed foul on their goalkeeper. 

Then a red card to Hoang Vissal stifled hopes for Can Tho, and late goals in the final five minutes from substitute Pereira Diogo from Brasil and Argentine substitute striker Gaston (Do) Merlo sealed a 4-2 victory for the local team, Da Nang.

With the game over, the TV crew gave me a lift to my hotel through heavy traffic and crowded entertainment precincts associated with the festive holidays.

Observations

On reflecting upon my unique football travel experiences, it is clear that like several other nations in the ASEAN football federation, football is well and truly on the rise in terms of quality, depth and organisation. How this subsequently translates into sustained successes at an international level remains to be seen, but the signs are already there. 

Only last month, we saw the Vietnamese women in the finals of the Asian Cup. They didn't win a match, but they were drawn in an incredibly strong group that included the two finalists (Japan and Australia) as well as South Korea, all of which qualified for next year's World Cup. 

Last year, their U20 national men’s team qualified for, and performed admirably at, the 2017 World Cup finals in Korea. 

In January, Vietnam reached their first ever AFC final going down in heart-breaking circumstances to a goal by Uzbekistan in the last minute of extra time in the U23 Championship. Along the way they defeated Australia in the group stage and then knocked out Iraq and Qatar. Several of their stars from this tournament featured prominently in the club games over this past weekend.

Numerous players have attracted considerable attention from professional clubs in major leagues of the region, including Thailand. With a population of over 90 million people, this market is already strongly supporting the local domestic pro-football products.  

Interestingly with 14 teams in the V-League, competition is hot by aspirational clubs via promotion from the 10-team V-League 2. 

This example should further reinforce the message that Football Federation Australia must set and facilitate a strategic pathway for expansion of the A-League in tandem with establishment of second tier and system of promotion and relegation between.

As part of our AFC membership, I believe we need to develop closer relationships and increase co-operation with football nations like Vietnam. It would help for our A-League clubs to recruit some comparatively affordable young professional talent from countries in south east Asia.

It is critical to increase diversity of playing styles. Out football development can only benefit as well as providing opportunities for footballers in our near region of Asia.

We already have close relationships with Vietnam, and the Vietnamese community in Australia is strong. Their vibrant communities in major cities and towns across Australia would, I am sure, welcome such initiatives. Football can be a powerful vehicle to help forge even better ties through mutual understanding and respect with our many Asian neighbours and friends.

Cam on nhieu (thank you) to the people Vietnam for this ongoing hospitality, support and generosity in making these visits to your wonderful nation even more special. I am hoping that our Socceroos will draw your nation in the same group of the 2019 Asian Cup, to be drawn on Friday.


Categories: Opinion | Football Life | Asia

#vleague, #asean, #vietnamfootball

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