Filling the football emptiness

Vietnam

Summer can be a difficult time for football fans. Weeks without matches lack a certain rhythm. Of course there are far fewer such weeks in a World Cup summer and so the void is shortened but not eliminated altogether. My quest to get my football fix took me to the Hang Day stadium in Hanoi during a recent trip to Vietnam. When I travel to a new country I always try to go to a local game.

So I took my seat for T&T Hanoi versus Gia Lai in the Vietnamese V League. A helpful fellow blogger (Bill George at www.vietfootball.com) had told me in advance that I would pay 50,000 dong (less than £1.50) for the privilege. As it happened I didn’t pay anything and I must therefore apologise if I inadvertently defrauded the club. When I turned up at the stadium I headed for the nearest entrance. Standing at the gate was a policeman and what appeared to be a steward or club official. I asked: “where do I buy a ticket?”

Being British, and being abroad, I obviously spoke slowly and loudly in order to aid their chances of understanding. They pointed into the stadium behind them and parted to let me through. Despite an extensive search I could not find anyone selling tickets and I noticed that my fellow supporters in this part of the ground didn’t seem to be carrying tickets. Nobody was checking tickets or asking for them so I sat down ticketless. I was actually quite disappointed by this because I like to keep ticket stubs from such occasions.

It was clear that I wasn’t in the main stand but was opposite it. I was with the section of the T&T support that might be described as the ultras – those that would provide the soundtrack for the game complete with several large drums and the conductor of this particular orchestra who had a microphone.

The T&T ‘ultras’ did their team proud; providing enthusiastic and occasionally tuneful backing for the full 90 minutes. The supporters were impeccably behaved and there was no away support that I could see. The combination of those two things made me think that the ratio of riot police to the riotous potential of the fixture was perhaps a little excessive.

I once went to a game at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb to see Dinamo Zagreb versus Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions League qualifier. I was intrigued to get my first live glimpse of Dinamo’s notorious ‘bad blue boys’ ultras. Yes they were loud, and they let off quite a few flairs but their intimidatory tactics were rather undone by a huge banner that they had draped all the way across the front of the stand. Even with my very limited grasp of the Croatian language I was able to understand that it read: “we love you mama but not as much as Dinamo.” That’ll show them boys.

In Hanoi, barely five minutes of the game had elapsed when a misplaced pass by a T&T defender became a very effective through ball for a Gia Lai striker and he gratefully slid the ball beneath T&T’s keeper. 0-1. Unperturbed, my drumming neighbours barely skipped a beat and the players showed a similar lack of panic as they gradually began to dominate.

The pace of the game was quite slow (not altogether surprising in the heat and humidity of a July evening in Hanoi) but I was impressed by the quality. Both sides were committed to keeping the ball on the deck where it belongs and the outstanding player on the pitch wore number 10 for T&T. Virtually all of their attacks went through him; he had vision, balance, an excellent range of passing and an ability to drift past opponents.

T&T’s attacks became more sustained and more threatening and after 30 minutes Gia Lai’s resistance broke. The ball was played across the edge of the box from the right before being struck rather straight at a fumbling goalkeeper and then rolling almost apologetically into the corner of the net. 1-1.

Both coaches wore shorts. A perfectly sensible sartorial decision in the conditions and they both managed to pull it off. I was reminded of coaches of British clubs who are often to be found in shorts at this time of year for pre-season and, with the possible exception of Mourinho, almost always look ridiculous. (If you can think of any other managers currently working in British football that can pull off the putting on of shorts then let me know in the comments section).

There was only a short time to wait before T&T took the lead that they deserved. Again it came from good work down the right wing and when the ball was pulled back, the same striker took one touch and sent a crashing finish into the roof of the net. 2-1.

It’s always interesting to observe what passes for half-time entertainment these days. Personally I’m of the view that half-time gimmicks, so common at grounds now, are annoying and unnecessary. Half time can be passed quite contentedly with just two things – the consumption of a pie and a conversation about the first half, concentrating mainly on the dubious performance of the referee and the substitutions that would be made if you were in charge.

A lack of pies (or any other sustenance) and my lack of Vietnamese meant that neither option was available to me in Hanoi. Half time entertainment was provided though which seemed to involve one lucky contestant attempting to throw a plastic ball into a bucket from a distance of about 10 yards. He succeeded on two out of five attempts but it remains unclear to me whether or not that entitled him to a prize.

With 10 minutes of the second half gone the scorer of the first two T&T goals claimed the prize of a hat trick. The goal was created by some more exquisite skill from the Hanoi number 10 and his through ball released his teammate to score with a scuffed finish. 3-1. The pace slowed even further after that as both sides seemed to more or less accept the result as it was. That indeed turned out to be the final score and T&T were very worthy winners.

Back when Jason serenaded Kylie with the line “yes it’s going to be a cold, lonely summer,” he might equally have been addressing Scottish football fans. He continued with a pledge to “fill the emptiness.” On a hot night in Hanoi, that’s exactly what happened.

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