Ha Noi T&T were off to Gia Lai Province in the central highlands to face Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) for a top of the table clash. HAGL are based in the provincial capital Pleiku. This was a region I’d never travelled to but had always wanted to. It’s known for beautiful countryside and, with its elevated status, the all important fresh country air. Unfortunately due to work commitments, this was going to have to be a short trip and any dreams I had of crawling along winding mountain roads, taking in breathtaking scenery were going to have to wait. It was back to my least favourite pastime of flying. This was to be a quick visit; wake up, fly, the game, eat, drink, sleep, and fly again. It sounds pretty simple, slightly boring in fact.
For not the first time this season I woke cursing this stupid idea and Hanoi T&T FC; 4am starts do not agree with me! After just a few hours sleep, I was standing on a deserted street in central Hanoi waiting for my taxi, questioning myself as to why I was doing this. The whole idea was to be able to visit more places, but the time frame available was not really going to allow us to explore Pleiku. This reminded me of a similar morning I once had in Southampton when I was stood at a train station to travel the length of the country for an away game at Bradford. Had I really become an obsessed fan? Surely not; I still can’t name the whole squad!
The plane was small and was bumped around as we hit turbulence getting closer to the central highlands. The scenery was stunning, with a cultivated patchwork of farmlands as far as one could see. Coming into Pleiku we were treated to an amazing aerial view of the rice paddies throughout the province, creating a beautiful mosaic.
My excitement grew as the plane finally came to a halt outside the small terminal building. A rather old bus was waiting to take the passengers approximately twenty metres to the doors, which brought a great amount of humor to those around us. It was indeed deemed necessary as the rain was teeming down and the winds were strong.
With limited time I’d booked a hotel online; the ‘grandest’ hotel in Pleiku. This vast concrete block on the outskirts of town came in to view, towering high above any other buildings nearby. Bearing in mind we were some 160km from the coast, my sleepy mind was thrown somewhat when we were greeted by a doorman in a sailors outfit. He was not alone; numerous sailors were spotted during the next 24 hours. The staff, including the sailors, seemed rather bewildered by our presence. I guess being in the centre of Vietnam with one piece of very small hand luggage and a camera would do that.
Tired and hungry it was time for a rest. Any ideas of even exploring for a day were off the cards as the wind forced horizontal rain across the city.
Within a few hours the rain had eased so we decided to walk the 2km to the stadium. We said good bye to the hotel ‘sailors’ and set off with anticipation of what the afternoon had in store. I had begun to wonder if we’d be noticed in the ground. Yes, there are not many foreigners that travel to Pleiku and the staring was fully evident, but I figured we’d just sit high up the stand to avoid the rain and not really be seen, let alone meet any other fans.
The walk felt like a very long 2km, maybe the sailors were indeed fishermen (“Really, it was this big!”). The stadium was unlike any I’d previously visited, with low stands on all sides and clearly dated. I loved it. The low stands were lined with cafes and food stalls built in to the sides; if it weren’t for the looming floodlights, it could easily be mistaken for a shopping centre. Of course we were ridiculously early, to take in the build up (something that doesn’t really occur in the Vleague as many fans arrive just before kickoff), but there were only police and various other security staff that packed out the cafes.
With tickets purchased, it was time for us to grab coffee. Choosing one of the cafes directly under the main entrance we were soon approach by a few guys. “You are the fan”, says one. “er, yes, I’m a fan” whilst trying to figure out why I recognized two of them. Then came “we are the players, 11 and 21”, Thanh Luong and Ngoc Duy, this was brilliant. It was all a bit weird though, aren’t the fans meant to recognize the players?? Fortunately Thanh Luong had slightly more English than my Vietnamese and we soon established that the pair were suspended for today’s game and we had all flown to Pleiku.
Two more guys with cameras appeared, I recognized them as they were on our flight and they started chatting to the players. I figured this could be interesting; we may get to sit in while the two Hanoi players are interviewed. No. One guy then moved to our table and introduced himself as an employee of VTV and spoke in great English at how the players were just informing them of our exploits travelling around following the team! Next came “Can we film you?” “We’d like to make a short piece on you? Come to your house and workplace.”
Whoa there…..I’m British, we are naturally reserved and I add my own awkwardness to it, which makes me very British! Stupidly, the word “yes” came from my mouth, the camera was set up and we just talked while the camera guy walked around taking shots at various angles. As the game approached the players departed, not before I asked for a quick photo. They, too, took their phones out for this photo opportunity with the reserved British guy, and we made our way to the entrance.
I looked round and the camera man followed us, action shots of the foreign fans entering, finding seats and doing what other fans do. If anything ever does come of this coverage I’d like to think the next moments are edited out. A large Ha Noi T&T drum was in the walkway; trying to flee the camera I opted to walk up and over the seats; “oh shit” came out of my mouth as I stumbled over the first seat. I then proceeded to cover the next few rows like a drunken Bambi, trying to wave at the other T&T fans shouting at me, who also had their cameras out….this was all going horribly! I was trying to figure out if this was worse than my TV debut a few years ago when I appeared on Chinese TV singing a Britney Spears song whilst dancing with a midget in a bear suit. The shots continued as we stood awkwardly pretending to be normal, I was in fact cursing myself for layering to keep warm (740m up, it must be Baltic right?) and giving myself a sweaty Michelin man look for the cameras. I didn’t want to start a strip for the cameras, which would have taken the day to a totally different level.
Once the cameraman had moved into his position for the coverage of the game, fortunately far away from us, it was time for the match to get underway. I was slightly worried, especially since finding out the influential pairing of Thanh Luong and Ngoc Duy would be sat in the stands. Indeed it was the home side that started well, with the strike force of Oseni, Evaldo and the very impressive Duc Duong linking up well to cause the Hanoi defence some problems. Duc Duong had a goal ruled out for offside after a wonderful back heel from Oseni and Hong Son got a crucial touch on Duc Duong’s effort to force a corner. I was worried, getting to half time without conceding would be great, and the fact Hong Son in the T&T goal was impressing shows the quality of HAGL. However, on 44 mins, it was T&T’s Samson with the clearest chance of the half when Gonzalo knock the ball down invitingly and the Nigerian striker lined up for a volley, only to see his effort fly wide. Half time 0-0.
Half time was a jovial occasion with numerous HAGL fans joining the visiting T&T fans for a chat, sharing a tobacco bong and some snacks. The second half got underway typically unnoticed by many, with T&T now attacking the goal at our end. This was a true top of the table cagey affair, surely to be decided by a single goal. Ha Noi’s central defensive midfielder, Sy Cuong, was again impressive, as was Bao Khanh on the wing, grabbing his chance to shine due to the suspensions.
With 58 minutes gone, HAGL broke away as Oseni combined well with Evaldo and Duc Duong to tear apart the Ha Noi defence, and Evaldo coolly finished, 1-0 HAGL. My head dropped as I stood silent whilst those around danced in celebration, another away defeat surely.
Instantly T&T rallied and within two minutes Bao Khanh was lining up a free kick from out wide. T&T’s talismanic captain, Cristiano, strolled forward. The cross floated in beautifully and Cristiano rose to direct a headed in to the far corner of Akpan’s goals from 12 yards out. 1-1! The captain had done it again, two goals in two games from the central defender.
The remainder of the game played out at a frantic pace. Oseni really should have won it for HAGL late on but saw his effort sneak wide. Full time 1-1.
Rain lashed down again over the city, so it was back to the hotel and our ‘sailor’ friends. Enjoying a couple of drinks in the deserted hotel bar I mulled over the day and the odd celebrity status I’d gathered over the past few months. I was feeling a mixture of embarrassment and a weird child-like excitement; really, what was happening? It was then that Lisa mentioned, “There are two other foreigners coming into the hotel”, I turned and instantly recognized T&T’s skipper (forgoing captain in respect to the hotel staff) Cristiano and the VLeagues top goal scorer Gonzalo.
As if the last few hours hadn’t been awkward enough my mind raced as to whether I should say hi or not, my reserved nature certainly didn’t want to interrupt anyone’s meal. Lisa instantly mentioned this is becoming a bit stalker-ish; after all I’m a grown man who watches other grown men in stockings run around kicking a ball! This did not help the situation.
This is an odd state of affairs as they clearly know who I am (both of these players called me to the front of the stand at the away match against Hai Phong to give me shirts) and obviously I know who they are, but we’ve never really spoken. Their English is limited and my Spanish/Portuguese is worse than my Vietnamese.
Eventually deciding we too needed to have solid food rather than a liquid dinner, we ventured to the restaurant. A sailor sat us down right next to the players, great (sense my annoyed sarcasm). We exchanged smiles. As Lisa laughed, I reassured myself I was not stalking them! We were in the hotel first, the sailors are our friends!
With the players departed and our own dinner finished it was time to relax back in the hotel bar. I was curious to find out what nightlife Pleiku had to offer. A quick internet search revealed one disco/karaoke club, which happen to be 12 floors above in our hotel! We couldn’t resist. It was kind of fun; a mix of karaoke, ballroom dancing and salsa.
Enjoying the remaining can of beer from the mini bar I stood out on the balcony and took in the city as the rained continued. I tried to figure out where this would stand with regards to previous football adventures I’d been on. It was certainly was of the stranger trips. It was time to sleep.
We were woken suddenly at 3am with what sounded like a large creature clawing at the inside of the cupboard! Seriously, 3am! Going to sleep a few hours earlier I thought nothing else odd could happen. Bleary eyed I didn’t want to open the door and deal with whatever was inside; was it a rat, a bird or a sailor? I’d really had enough and just moved the bedside cabinet and blocked the cupboard door.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai 1 v 1 Ha Noi T&T
Evaldo 58′ Cristiano 60′