With much of the world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout that has followed, the sports industry has of course been deeply affected. Around the globe, professional sports leagues were abruptly stopped in their tracks as the virus began to take its hold, in some cases before new seasons could even get off the ground. However, in the past couple of months, sports leagues have finally begun to slowly resume play, offering a slice of normalcy for a world that so desperately needs it.
While the return of major professional sports, such as Europe’s top football leagues or the NBA and MLB in the United States, is certainly a welcome respite from the harsh realities of the pandemic and the uncertain future that lays beyond it, one major aspect of the draw of these leagues is missing. Fans are currently not allowed to attend matches, and thus the incredible and intoxicating atmosphere they create at the world’s top sporting events has been replaced by the thud of someone kicking the ball, the sound of coaches and players communicating on the field or court, or by fake stadium noise that’s added to broadcasts before they reach everyone’s television screens. Some teams, leagues, and broadcasters have gotten quite creative in their attempts to simulate a realistic match-day atmosphere, but nothing hits quite like the real thing.
While most places haven’t recovered fully enough from the pandemic to allow fans to attend games, there are a few places around the world where COVID-19 already almost seems like a thing of the past. Vietnam is a great example of this, where there has been no community transmission of the virus since mid-April, and remarkably not a single death has been recorded as a result of it either.
As a result, Vietnam allowed fans to enter Thiên Trường Stadium on 23 May for a National Cup battle between Dược Nam Hà Nam Định FC and Hoàng Anh Gia Lai FC, with some 15,000 fans reportedly piling into the stadium to watch the first football match played in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Vietnam’s top flight football leagues, V.League 1 and V.League 2, have been allowing fans since the restart in early June, with some teams even offering free entry as a show of gratitude to fans for their support.
I was finally able to attend a match myself on 19 July, my first match of the season due to a work schedule that has heavily conflicted with the condensed schedule of this shortened V.League season.
About an hour’s drive southwest of Ho Chi Minh City lies Tân An, the provincial capital of Long An province, and the gateway to the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. Long An Stadium, showing signs of heavy degradation after spending 36 years baking in the exceptionally strong Vietnamese sun and being pounded by the monsoonal deluges that characterize the Mekong Delta region this time of year, would set the stage for the V.League 2 match-up between the 10th-place home side, Long An FC, and the youthful but supremely talented 2nd-place away side Phố Hiến FC.
Seeing that the home side sit near the bottom of the table in the second-tier of professional Vietnamese football, the game was not particularly well-attended; perhaps at most 500 or so spectators made their way to Long An Stadium to watch the match. That being said, V.League 1 has had some of the best attendance numbers in recent memory with several stadiums even experiencing some issues with over-crowding as fans flock to the grounds to get a glimpse of some of their footballing heroes after a frightening few months of social distancing and existential anxiety.
The match itself wound up being rather defensive in nature without many true goal-scoring chances for either side and finished a 0–0 draw, though both teams could have easily bagged a goal or two as the match went on. Long An dominated possession throughout much of the first half, whereas the second half was all Phố Hiến, perhaps due in part to their youthful exuberance and energy allowing them to stay strong deep into the match despite the high humidity and temperature.
Both goalkeepers deserve massive credit for their play, but 19 year-old Phố Hiến keeper Trương Thái Hiếu would be my man of the match for his standout performance in keeping this game scoreless throughout the first half, and especially when Long An were threatening to steal all 3 points at the very end of the match.
Despite the low attendance and lack of scoring, the atmosphere was still rather exciting and, occasionally, tense. Sitting with a small but die-hard group of Phố Hiến supporters that graciously adopted me as one of their own, I was able to be fully immersed in the experience, even being offered some homemade rice-wine at the halftime break; I sadly had to decline with the specter of the hour-long motorbike ride home on a major highway looming in the near future, but this classic gesture of Vietnamese hospitality was not lost on me.
Both V.League 1 and V.League 2 have a unique format this season due to the condensed schedule, with just one promotion/relegation spot up for grabs between the two leagues, and the leagues set to split into championship/relegation rounds after each team plays everyone else one time. It’s a tight race at the top and bottom of both tables, and is sure to be an exhilarating race for the V.League 1 title, as well as for the lone promotion spot from V.League 2.
While the quality of play is obviously not the same as the top leagues of Europe, the entertainment value is certainly there, and given how football-crazy Vietnam is, the passion and love for the game is unmatched virtually anywhere else. If nothing else, Vietnamese football currently offers us something that most of the rest of the sports world is missing at present: an opportunity to be a part of an authentic professional sports experience, complete with fans in the stands.