Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hanoi T&T 0 at Saigon Xuan Thanh 0 (V League) - August 19, 2012

Saigon and Hanoi are famous in the United States as the opposing capitals during the Vietnam War. Although Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City (often abbreviated HCMC) after it fell to the victorious North in 1975, much of the city still retains the old moniker, and thus you can still see the old rivals fighting it out, although this time on the soccer field. The V-League is Vietnam's domestic circuit, which was formed in 1980, a mere five years after the nation was reunified. The league begins play in January and finishes in August, with each of 14 teams playing each other home and away for 26 total matches. Coincidentally, I was visiting HCMC during the final weekend of play and decided to venture out of the city centre to Thong Nhat Stadium to watch Saigon Xuan Thanh hosting Hanoi T&T. (For simplicity, I am using the general English spellings of these names and avoiding the diacritical marks that are everywhere in the Vietnamese language).

There is little information available in English, so my research was limited, but it appeared as if Saigon was not a popular team. Their last fixture drew only 3,500 to a 25,000 seat stadium, so I wasn't expecting much in the way of a crowd. What I didn't count on was that this game would likely be the championship decider. Hanoi led the league with 47 points, with Saigon just a single point behind. Another team, SHB Da Nang (again a city more famous in the U.S. for its wartime associations) was level on points with Saigon but behind in goal difference. With this being the last week of the season, the winner of the Saigon-Hanoi tilt would take the title, while a draw between those two combined with a Da Nang victory would send Da Nang home with the trophy.

I had spent most of the afternoon touring and got away late, arriving around 30 minutes before the 16:10 start time. The taxi ride from downtown was 75 000 Vietnamese dong (VND), which is about US$3.60. I realized that I had severely underestimated the number of fans when my taxi driver stopped a block from the stadium to drop me off, as he could go no further. HCMC is ridiculously disordered at the best of times, but this was insane. A mass of humanity stretched across the street, preventing even motorcycles from making it through. These particular fans had been shutout of the end zone seats and were vainly trying to push open the sealed doors. I quickly understood that this would be no typical sporting event.

I slowly made my way around to the main entrance, where things were somewhat quieter, in other words, there was actually a bit of room to maneuver. There were three open doors, one with a VIP label (above) in front of which the fans were well behaved. The other two had police in riot gear (below) trying to prevent a teeming sea of fans from surging through the door. Most of these patrons had tickets and were waving them in the air, and one-by-one they were allowed in. There was nobody at what I assumed was the ticket window, but I did see a few scalpers. Vietnam is still very cheap for those of us used to western economies, and the tickets were priced around $3 from what I saw. Scalpers were asking 6-7 times that, which may not be a lot of money to you or me, but is far more than I was willing pay given the local conditions. Especially with no guarantee of getting in the venue.

I saw a fourth entrance down at one end and ventured over to see a boisterous group pushing their way past an angry security guard. This appeared to be the general admission section, and no ticket was required. Joining the heaving mass, I was soon propelled into the stadium and up a concrete staircase. Sadly, the field was still not in view, as several thousand fans had preceded me into the area. Many of them had secured dangerous perches along railings and at the top of the roof from which to watch the game, but I was not willing to try my rusty climbing skills, choosing to push my way through the crowd.

By this time I had gained a view of the field, I was drenched as the 31 C weather is that much hotter when surrounded by hundreds of other fans. I secured a relatively safe spot as kickoff approached and looked over the field. There were armed guards on the track surrounding the pitch (you can barely make them out in the shot below), a sight not much different from seeing policemen at Yankee Stadium. The difference here is that they would likely use their guns to quell a riot. From my vantage point, I could see most of the field but as soon as the game began, those behind started to push and much of the time was spent pushing back or simply going along with the crowd. The action on the field was secondary to trying to stay upright as more and more fans made their way in, causing much consternation and what I assumed was swearing. I was reminded of tragedies that have struck several overcrowded African soccer venues but fortunately, this stadium was up to the task.

After about 20 minutes of rather mundane football, I decided to leave the crush and venture back outside to catch my breath. What did I see but more riot police driving in! OK then. Back into the swarm where I again managed to get to the front and watched the last few minutes of the first half, still scoreless.

At halftime, I again headed outside and was surprised to see the riot police had surrounded the VIP entrance. I am not sure why this was done, but I was able to get close, although not brave enough to snap a picture. At another entrance, a foreigner who had been locked out while grabbing a snack was repeatedly beating on the door and getting no reaction, other than slack-jawed stares from the locals. Eventually someone guided him over to the VIP entrance and he was admitted.

No such luck was afforded to me however, so once the second half had started, I again tried the GA section. By now I was too tired to push through the throng and resorted to occasional glimpses of the field. What little I saw was not encouraging with bad passes and feigned injuries the rule of the day, and with 25 minutes left in the still goalless game, I headed out with just a single picture of the action (above).

While walking back, I stopped in at a bar to watch the last few minutes of the match on TV. It was amazing how different the stadium looked when you avoided the GA section; it was much more serene and orderly than what I had just experienced. Sadly for the home supporters, Saigon was unable to net a winner despite several chances near the end. Meanwhile Da Nang won their match and thus took home the championship, jumping from third place on the last day of the season. Quite an exciting finish to the league but one that you will never hear about in the sports pages.

For me though, it was one of the most exciting, exhilarating, enjoyable, dangerous, disgusting, and ultimately memorable sports road trip experiences. But not one that I'd like to repeat. Next time, I'll be getting a ticket regardless of how much it costs.



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