Next up Ha Noi T&T take on second placed Song Lam Nghe An at San Van Bong Da Vinh. SLNA are based in Vinh City, capital of Nghe An province, which lies in the north of Central Vietnam. With four games remaining and two points currently separating the two sides this is the fixture being billed as the “match of the season”. To say I was excited would be a huge understatement.
SLNA seem to be the nation’s favourite team, with media coverage constantly lauding each performance and their amazing number of fans. Vinh seems to be the breeding capital of Vietnam as everywhere the team plays thousands of fans originating from the province take over each stadium they visit. On numerous occasions I’ve met migrant workers and students in other cities who hail from this beautiful part of the country.
It’s reported some 30,000 SLNA fans squeezed in to the Binh Duong stadium (capacity appro 22,000) last Sunday to witness there teams surprising 2-1 defeat. I was one of them. Having travelled to see Ha Noi take on Dong Nai I was only an hour’s bus ride from Binh Duong so figured it would be rude not to attend. The majority of SLNA fans are great; very friendly and many were delighted to see me, which was until I informed them I’m a fan of T&T, hoping for a Becamex Binh Duong win.
Due to the actions of many SLNA fans the previous week the FA had acted to improve the safety and security for the visit of Ha Noi, with the stadium capacity being reduced by 5,000 to 15,000 and tickets sold in advance, selling out in a day. Along with riot police, the army had been drafted in to ensure no one can breach the walls.
Vinh City is often overlooked on the tourist trail as just a transport hub, but wandering the streets I soon came across a welcoming city full of smiles, and of course the obligatory stares, but that’s ok. The temperature was high, well in to the 30’s and as I search for the Ho Chi Minh Square I began dreaming of the hotel pool. It turned out the players, or at least their bus, were also staying at the same hotel.
At breakfast the following morning, nursing a rather sore head following an evening of local hospitality at a nearby Bia Hoi, Ngoc Duy (Hanoi T&T’s central midfielder) invited me to join his table for breakfast. The night before, after numerous glasses of Bia I started to believe my level of Vietnamese was pretty good, however this was fully exposed over morning coffee! That was until Bao Khanh, the ‘old’ player often on the bench, introduced himself in great English. With the game sold out Bao Khanh kindly offered to ask the club president to get me a ticket. I’m studying hard so I can at least basically converse with these very welcoming players in the future.
Paranoid by all the media hype I’d already been in touch with my friend at VTV, who had offered to get me a media pass so I’d be pitch side and he came good. However there was the obligatory acting that went along with this deal, this time I’d be asking touts how much their tickets were. At first with the camera right on me the touts would run a mile until it was decided they’d film from a distance. I was to go undercover! I was being quoted between $10-15 for a ticket with a face value of $1-2.50, this is a very high price for this region, one of the poorer in the country and I hoped the touts would lower their prices nearer the kick off.
I was inside early, after many quizzical looks from police and security, probably because my friend Tung had happened to have loaned me a pass of a female colleague! The story was that I was a journalist from England and after hearing the hype around this game I needed to cover it. Hilarious. Bao Khnah also came good, but I was already inside. I was sat by the tunnel, routinely being talked about by the security, when the players departed after their warm-up, the surprised look on my breakfast companions faces was brilliant, I don’t think Van Quyet and Ngoc Duy expected to see me there. The odd Englishman who often travels the length of the country alone to watch Vietnamese football was now masquerading as a female Vietnamese sports journalist and casually sitting on the floor by the tunnel.
Ha Noi T&T have lost full back Quoc Long and goalkeeper Hong Son due to suspensions, while other fullback Hong Tien is refusing to play against his home town club, unbelievably citing too much pressure. Top of the league and the real potential to be champions with a win and he pulls out, especially with the team already two defensive players down. I would also find out that captain and central defender Cristiano would pull out due to injury, a day before the game.
The main stand was packed well over an hour before kickoff and I was trying to figure out who’d actually be lining up for T&T, even their normal second choice goalkeeper would be missing through injury, although he still had to sit on the bench. Young goalkeeper Van Cuong was to make his VLeague debut in the “match of the season”, with a defence in front of him consisting of striker Gonzalo, partnered by Tien Dung and full backs for the day Van Bien and young Sam Ngoc Duc. I feared the worse for this new defensive line up. Captain for the day Sy Cuong and central midfielders Ngoc Duy and Van Hieu would be vital if Ha Noi hoped for a positive result.
As the national anthem played I looked at the SLNA team, remembering not being overly impressed in the two live games I’d seen them in, most recently their defeat last week. My fear didn’t last long, the Ha Noi players looked confident and relaxed. Van Cuong made a solid start in goal, collecting a couple of crosses and making a nice block, his confidence was growing. Young Sam Ngoc Duc made a great last ditch block to deny a certain goal for the home team. Gonzalo and Tien Dung were throwing themselves at everything. The defence were amazing. More saves and crosses taken by Van Cuong, a player the media would later admit they’ve never heard of before this afternoon in Vinh. Half time 0-0.
Towards the end of the first half 5 or 6 referees decisions had all gone T&T’s way, correctly too, but the home fans and triggered the showering of bottles/sandals from the stands. When the Police chief took the megaphone to calm/threaten those throwing things, he soon became the target and it was set, this was to be today’s half time entertainment.
Being pitch side was a strange experience. It was great to be close and see the packed stands full of excited supporters from a different angle, and you get a real feel for how fast these players actually are. However I couldn’t help wishing I were in the stands, amongst the passion. I seemed to be located in a no-mans land; separate from the fans, close to the action (but with a terrible view of anything past the halfway line) and surrounded by people who were bored, they were working after all. Photographers seemed to give up after a while, opting to play on their phones and smoke cigarettes, the camera men were even late setting up for the second half as they too played on their phones (which could explain some of the dubious highlights coverage)
The second half got underway, more of the same, prolonged spells of SLNA pressure being dealt with well by the makeshift defence, while T&T burst forward on sporadic attacks led by the hardworking Samson, Van Quyet and Thanh Luong. Midway through the half and SLNA were awarded an indirect free kick, possibly 10 yards from goal. The resulting free kick thundered off the underside of the bar, bounced no more than a foot inside the area and was cleared to safety. The stadium was stunned. Myself, Tung and the T&T substitutes warming up next to us breathed a sigh of relief.
The pressure continued, but still Samson would burst forward, always threatening to still steal the points for Ha Noi. The moment of the day came as a strike from outside the box for SLNA (not sure who by as I was too far away) was curling towards the top corner and the debutant keeper’ Van Cuong leapt at full strength to get the slightest of touches and tipped the ball on to the bar and away to safety. He just confirmed his moment of man of the match and a coveted place in the VLeague team of the week.
T&T fought on and saw out the game for a hard earned draw. This could well be a defining moment going in to the last three games of the season. Often dismissed for their lack of strength in depth, the coach got it spot on and the players who came in and/or move position to accommodate all of the absentees performed exceptionally well.
‘The match of the season’? The ‘VLeagues El Classico’? perhaps not, well not for the neutral anyway. For T&T; the players, staff and small number of fans, the title just got a little bit closer.
Song Lam Nghe An 0 v 0 Ha Noi T&T
Att. 15,000 (but some say 20,000, who knows?)