Vietnam fans need to step up this season

John Duerden John Duerden

Vietnamese football fans need to get out in numbers and support their local teams, not just the national one, says John Duerden.

The feeling of the snow under the boots will still be fresh in the memory of those Vietnamese players that reached the final of the Asian U23 Championships in January in such wintry conditions in China. The millions of fans back home will still have those red shirts cleaned and hanging in their cupboards in their Hanoi and Saigon apartments.

Those scenes in those cities were spread and shared around the world. Here was a football-loving country celebrating a rare piece of continental success. All could relate to those scenes. There are still divisions in Vietnamese society – just as there are anywhere – but there were none in January. The idea that football brings people together can become a cliche but that was not the case here: there was national pride and joy.

Here was a team of youngsters going toe to toe with nations that are considered stronger and winning. Crucially, these were nations that the Vietnamese have traditionally considered as stronger. Those three weeks should have instilled the notion in all in the country that Vietnam’s players are as good as those anywhere.

Now is the chance for those players to show what they can do week in and week out. The league is to kick of this week and the stars from January need to show that they have moved up to a new level. It is time to show that they can be the big stars that their teams can turn to when they need something special.

The signs so far are good. In the 2018 AFC Cup, the two Vietnamese representatives have won three of their four games so far. Song Lam Nghe An are top with a win at Tampines Rovers and then at home to Malaysian powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim. Thanh Hoa are also going well. The contingents from Hanoi and Hoang Anh Gia Lai should be looking to lead their teams to greater heights.

It is not just about the players though. The national team coach Park Hang-seo knows all about this. The bald coach was a member of Guus Hiddink’s staff back at the 2002 World Cup. The scenes in Hanoi and Saigon were reminiscent of Seoul 16 years ago when the Korean capital was a sea of red.

At the very end of that run to the semifinals, the Red Devils – the fan group that had impressed the watching world as much as the team – famously held up a banner that read: “CU@K-League”. It was a message to the rest of the nation, to the millions that had been swept up in the emotion in that magical summer.

It was a plea and a reminder. It was an entreaty to a fraction of those millions to get to their local stadiums and support the teams that produce these stars and – in many cases – still were home to the stars.

It was also a reminder that if there is not a strong league then it makes it much harder to have a strong national team. It is no good turning up once every few years to enjoy the passion and then not getting involved for the rest of the time. The more interest and engagement there is, the better it is for all.

It happened for a while in Korea. The population did heed the call and were soon flocking to those brand new World Cup arenas dotted all around the southern half of the peninsula. It didn’t last though as it was never likely to do in the fickle world of Korean sport.

Vietnam needs to be different. We speak of Vietnam as being a football-loving country but domestic attendances are not that great especially given the population.

That is not good enough. For Vietnam to be a genuine football-loving country then those who enjoyed the events of January need to show their love of the game and get down to their local clubs for the months and years to come. The clubs, the leagues and Vietnamese football needs them. It will increase the size of the market in the country, bring in more money and then give the V-League the backdrop it needs.

While we can talk about how the players need to show that they can take the next step up in their careers and become better players in the coming season, the fans too have a part to play. It is up to the fans to show that Vietnam has what it takes to become a football powerhouse.