This was something the football-mad population of Vietnam had been waiting for. An obsession for European football borne out of skill, strength and quality has led to a dwindling interest in their own domestic league. So when one of the biggest teams of the English top tier came to Hanoi, it was a historic occasion for the people, players and perhaps, most of all, the sponsors who will no doubt remember this special night for years to come.
The scoreline wasn’t important — Arsenal eased to victory, seven goals to one — but there’s one story everyone will remember: the ‘Running Man’. Vu Xuan Tien, a 20-year-old pharmacy college student, tirelessly chased the team bus for 8km to meet the players. Arsenal TV filmed his exploits and put a video on YouTube that at the time of writing had over 2 million hits. His efforts, which have made headlines in the English sports press, are a demonstration of what this means to the people of Vietnam who’ve been anticipating this moment for a long time.
A packed room of Vietnamese journalists awaited the start of a pre-match press conference at the team’s hotel. The air was heavy with excitement. When the head coach, Arsene Wenger, and a couple of players entered the room, there was a scrum. These weren’t footballers, they were pop stars.
Le Hung Dung, chairman of Eximbank, the main sponsor of the visit, said he was looking to “make football [in Vietnam] more professional”. Dung, who is also the deputy president of the Vietnamese Football Federation, met Wenger seven years ago in London. A link was formed, a football academy launched, and finally, Vietnam was ready to host one of the big guns of world football.
The team arrived at 5am to hundreds of clamouring fans — the players weren’t expecting it. Midfielder, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, was “blown away by the atmosphere” in the capital while Wenger was delighted with the non la (Vietnamese conical hat) he and all the team received after landing.
It’s no coincidence that the tour has come at a time when the British are celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Dr. Antony Stokes, ambassador for the UK, is glad he could assist in “putting a spotlight on football in this country” at a time when the relationship between the two countries is “developing in such a positive way”.
Fighting a path through the traffic jams, touts, hawkers, flag sellers and hoards of people wearing the red shirts of Arsenal, news came over the loud speaker of the ‘Running Man’. Wenger attributed his team’s good performance to Tien’s never-say-die attitude. All of his dreams had just come true; getting to meet the team he’s supported since he was six years old, getting invited to watch a match in London and then being interviewed before the match in front of 40,000 fans.
Those that could afford the tickets had travelled from far and wide to see their national heroes play against their footballing heroes. They were joined by fans living in Hong Kong and New Zealand, among other places, to watch their team play. A Londoner, living in Ho Chi Minh City, had never seen such a buildup to a match. “I’ve been to other Asian countries to watch Arsenal,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like this before, [everyone is] going crazy for it.”
“This is a once-in-thousand-year event,” one supporter told me, wishing that it could happen a little more regularly. “Hopefully there will be more chances to experience this type of thing — it means so much to the Vietnamese people.”
Inside the packed-out My Dinh national stadium the noise certainly wasn’t deafening, although chants of “Vi-et-nam! Vi-et-nam!” rang out from pockets around the grounds.
After a spirited start from the adrenalin-fueled Red Warriors, Oliver Giroud put away Arsenal’s first chance and it wasn’t long before the Mexican Waves were visibly surging to keep the team’s spirit up. It was later on in the first half that Giroud added his and Arsenal’s second and the chants changed to “Ars-en-al, Ars-en-al”.
The crowd got behind the Vietnamese side, cheering every advance up the field, but with halftime approaching they failed to convert numerous chances. They were left to rue their missed opportunities when Giroud secured his hat trick with a deft touch over the Vietnamese keeper, effectively putting the game to bed.
The second half brought more Arsenal goals and a glut of substitutions from both teams, the biggest reception going to Jack Wilshire, who replaced Oxlade Chamberlain.
The heavens opened but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans who continued to cheer the home side on. Their reward came in comical fashion as Tran Manh Dung’s shot ballooned over the keeper after a deflection. Dung celebrated like he’d scored in the World Cup final as did the crowd. He took his shirt off and was booked.
The match over, Wenger wished everyone good luck, while spectators fought for shirts thrown into the crowd. Smiles filled the faces of the exiting fans.
Post Match Analysis
I asked Wenger whether, based on the performance and spectacle of tonight, Arsenal would be back. “We’ve been impressed by the warm welcome and the warmth of the people as well as the quality on the pitch… It’s not just up to me, Vietnam has to want us too.”
Development of local football is a key issue that Wenger was able to shed light on. “The standard [in Vietnam] is similar to what I saw in Japan in 1995, look at them [the Japanese] now. They have one academy, hopefully there will be more and the local game will improve.” He added, “It will take time but the team has some promise and one day you will see them at the World Cup.”
Does Vietnam want it though? The reason people prefer to watch European football is because the quality is simply better. Everyone supports the national team, but gates for the local games need to increase and money needs to be invested.
Tien, the ‘Running Man’, says he doesn’t see himself as a hero but just “lucky enough to show the world the effort, passion and resilience of the Vietnamese people, when we really love something and we work hard for it”. He ended by saying, “ I think this is a motivation for Vietnamese football to go further to compete on the world stage.”
The British Ambassador summed up the feeling: “After the amazing spectacle of the London 2012 Olympics, sport, once again has brought us all together.” The sport this time was football, and it demonstrates how united the country is when their team comes together to compete, no matter how well they do.
The Price of History
Putting on the ‘game of history’ came at a price.
My Dinh National Stadium isn’t nationally owned. The VFF had to pay VND800 million for the courtesy of staging the match, which is nearly four times higher than the average rental price. The stadium owners insisted that this was no ordinary game and that preparations were above the usual level. Thus the price hike.
This may have contributed to the high ticket costs. Official tickets set fans back between VND1 million and VND1.5 million, which isn’t a lot less than a seat at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s home ground. One local journalist thought that “the price was reasonable for the hardcore fans who would travel to Thailand, Malaysia or Japan to watch Arsenal play”.
While the jury may be out, all the supporters we interviewed before the match believed they got good value for their money.