When I tell a friend I’m going to watch Hanoi T&T FC play he offers up a derisory snort. I get my bike fixed and the local mechanic 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 nation 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 debut Premier League goal. His housemate was an Arsenal fan and shows levels of exasperation equal to that seen in a Highbury boozer as both sides relentlessly attack each other to a thoroughly entertaining 0-0 draw. The gluttonous English Premier League has an appetite which shows no signs of abating.
I learn that the Vietnamese Premier League was recently voted the the third most corrupt league in the world, and it is this perception of the league being so dirty and so sullied by scandal that has led many locals to avoid it like the plague. Its record of bungs, bribes and bent referees make Italy’s beleaguered Serie A look like a noble and principled organisation. In 2014 the club Vissai Ninh Binh wrote to the Vietnamese F.A. asking to withdraw from the league after 13 of their players were found involved in match fixing. Dozens of players, managers and referees have been jailed since the sport turned professional in 2000. There are nearly 100 foreign bookmakers that accept betting on Vietnamese matches, which tells its own story.
As I walk up to the Hàng Đẫy stadium in the nation’s capital city, Hanoi, there are chickens squawking outside as they dodge motorbikes. The polished corporate experience of an Old Trafford or an Emirates is a world away. If buildings can be identified by the politics that built them then this ground is unmistakeably 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 vernacular of Hanoi. Punters flow into the ground like a school of fish, and everywhere you look, ticket touts are waving pieces of paper in the air. A win for Hanoi today against FLC Thanh Hoa and they clinch the title. Their rivals Hai Phong have to hope Hanoi lose, and improve the goal deficit by 4. It should be rare and pure sporting drama, there is a palpable air of tension amongst those who are here, but the ground is nowhere near full.
Manchester United were recently announced as the first Football club to gross over £500 million pounds in a single year but they won’t be seeing a penny here, as the several stalls that are outside the ground sell counterfeit kits with badges that are too large and with Rooney printed on the back. 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. You are reminded of where in the world you are as 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 beautiful game, but you wonder how the hyper-capitalism of the English Premier League would wash with one of the most revered communists of the 20th century.
I would like to think if I had the skills to be a journeyman footballer I would ply my trade in the obscure leagues of the world. A midfield general in Malta, a left back in the Lebanon, a star striker in Serbia. Hanoi’s Argentinian number 9 Gonzalo Marronkle fits my cult hero criteria. How on earth did he end up playing here? and looking at him when compared to his diminutive Vietnamese teammates he looks massive. They would call him a good 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 did make it 1-0 after twenty minutes, unmarked on a corner as he tapped into an empty net. He lumbers around the pitch like one of the water buffalos you regularly come across in the Vietnamese countryside, without any sense of menace or threat. But with a record in Vietnam that stretches to all the way back to 2009, he scores every other game.
Nguyễn Quang Hải for Hanoi is a mercurial figure and has magic feet. He’s 19 years old and gets the fans on their feet every time he touches the ball and runs with it. Midfielders who dazzle with the ball is a language football fans will always appreciate no matter where in the world you are. Half time comes and over runs by 7 or 8 minutes for reasons unknown, but comparing this to Football in Europe is futile. They run to a different clock in Vietnam which is actually pretty refreshing when you think of 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 all close to each other and at the same time, the fans realise the logistical difficulties of this and throw a couple onto 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. At around 70 minutes he collapses to the floor with cramp, like a school kid 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. Man of the match, and Hanoi are top of the league and close in their first league title since 2013.
The league is riddled with corruption, but moments like Nguyen dancing past about 6 defenders, or a completely unexpected Marronkle bicycle kick from the edge of the box is football at its most pure. The Vietnamese watch the likes of Sergio Aguero or Cristiano Ronaldo on TV and perhaps are spoilt. But, as the saying doesn’t quite go, could they do it on a baking 40 degree afternoon in Hanoi? The economy in Vietnam is growing exponentially; the population has grown by a million at the start of every new football season. There is so much untapped potential here for their domestic game.
Good footballers are on show here, who can surprise and entertain, you just hope that the Vietnamese 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 onto their glory.