Percy Preston inadvertently stumbles across the supporters of Hai Phong FC, some of Vietnam’s most passionate fans.
I heard them before I saw them. Scooter engines, horns and the sound of flares going off announced the arrival to Hanoi of the Hai Phong away support. I was sitting in the first floor of a café overlooking the Ho Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Vietnam’s capital city, grateful for air-conditioning. I walked over to the window to see where the noise was coming from. At first I thought it was a protest: hundreds of scooter riders wearing red, waving flags, shouting into megaphones and banging on drums. Yet that seemed unlikely in a single-party state, where the ruling Communist Party tightly controls freedom of expression and the few policemen I could see looked unconcerned. There was, as I saw it, only one other possibility: football fans.
This hardly chimed with my experience of football in Southeast Asia to date. I had been to matches in Yangon in Myanmar and Vientiane in Laos. While both were worth seeing, they had left me with the impression that the domestic leagues of Southeast Asia were suffering from the competition of European football. Both games had been sparsely attended, and the atmosphere flat. Bars were usually rammed for the three o’clock Premier League kick-off. The most exciting moment of the game in Yangon was when a pack of stray dogs invaded the pitch, a moment cheered by the hundred or so fans attending.
These fans in Hanoi were something else. One man, his face painted red, was shouting into a megaphone while his family rode on the back of his scooter. Another was letting off a flare while carrying a fridge on his bike. A quick internet search told me that there was a game at the Hang Day stadium, near the centre of the city. My friend and I followed the fans to the stadium, where we bought tickets for 90,000 dong, the equivalent of about £3, and found our way to the away end, where the fans of Hai Phong were gathering.
These fans in Hanoi were something else. One man, his face painted red, was shouting into a megaphone while his family rode on the back of his scooter. Another was letting off a flare while carrying a fridge on his bike.
One moment stands out from the match: the Hai Phong centre forward Errol Stevens, a former Jamaica international, scored a free-kick to bring his team level with Hanoi. Flares were lit, Stevens tried (and failed) to climb the fence to join the fans in celebration, thousands of replica dollar bills were released onto the crowd from above, and a giant Hai Phong FC banner was draped across the whole away section. The source of the bills, the banner and a large number of plastic bottles aimed at the touchline security, was a group of young fans who had climbed onto the roof of the stand from the outside of the stadium. Though they draped the banner without a hitch, they were less successful in their efforts to refurl it: about two thirds of the Hai Phong support had no view of the pitch for the last fifteen minutes of the game. No great shame, given Hanoi scored the winner in stoppage time.
Neither this, nor Hai Phong’s failure to convert superior possession into anything telling, curbed the enthusiasm of the crowd. At one point, several fans started playing the tune of jingle bells on their trumpets, to which the crowd enthusiastically danced along (the game was in May). Naturally, they followed up Jingle Bells with Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’.
Despite our lack of Vietnamese – my entire vocabulary consisted of the words for ‘cheers’ – my friend and I did manage some very basic conversation with the people sat around us. Our neighbour explained that although Hai Phong was his first team, he also supported Manchester United. Another, after I told him that I supported Crystal Palace, suggested I switch my allegiances: “No Crystal Palace; only Haiphong”.
Returning home, I tried to find out more about Haiphong FC. The club very briefly entered the Western footballing consciousness when Brazilian World Cup winner and one time world’s most expensive footballer, Denílson, signed for them in 2009. When the Hai phong board announced the signing of Denílson, huge numbers of fans attended the next game at the Lach Tray stadium – Hai phong’s home ground – on June 6, 2009, hoping to see their World Cup winner in action. They were to be disappointed; Denílson claimed that he was not yet match fit and watched from the stands. In protest at their new star’s absence from the pitch, fans set fire to newspapers (and their own stadium’s seating), threw the burning balls of paper at touchline security, while chanting for 90 mins at Denílson to ‘go home’. Irascibility, it seems, is a quality of football fans the world over. The Brazilian did eventually make his debut on 21st June, scoring a free-kick within two minutes, before getting injured. His first and last appearance for the club.
Fans of any club will be familiar with the frustration of their major signing failing to live up to expectations. Perhaps Chelsea fans would’ve found some catharsis in burning their seats in protest at the performances of expensive flops like Fernando Torres or Andriy Shevchenko. Perhaps it would have had the added bonus of generating some atmosphere at the Bridge. There are other moments in Hai phong’s history that, for more unfortunate reasons, will also resonate with fans the world over. In May 2008, violence erupted after a V-League game between Haiphong and Song Lam in Vinh city. Ten people were seriously injured and one person was killed, the climax to a series of incidents involving Hai phong’s supporters. Violence, it seems, is never too remote where football is concerned.
Bad signings and riots aside, the only other thing I managed to find related to Haiphong was a Youtube clip of the game I attended. Fittingly, it is entirely of the fans.