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Hanoi FC: The Vietnamese Champions struggling to connect with the locals

Trong Nhan Doan looks at the peculiar case of Hanoi FC

Most of the time, the most successful team is the most popular team in the league.

However, for the three-time V-League champions Hanoi FC, the team is unable to create a decent fan base.

Team profile

On the field, Hanoi has risen to the occasion time and again. After a respectable fourth-place finish in its debut season in 2009, Hanoi hasn’t looked back. The team won the league on three occasions and has finished no worse than second in the past seven seasons. It’s an incredible journey for the team, considering the team was founded back in 2006.

The team’s academy has laid a great foundation. Hanoi completed the sweep in the youth tournaments in 2016. Five players were called to compete in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup last May, the most among V-League teams. Thanks to the smart player development and first-team integration strategy, Hanoi boasts great depth on the roster. Eleven players registered were trained in the club and are expected to progress at the club in the upcoming years.

However, the team struggles to receive support from the locals. The team has tried numerous ways to boost its popularity, including opening the gate for the public but fails to attract attraction. Unsurprisingly, Hanoi has the worst attendance record, which is a shame for the most consistency team in the league.

A tale of two games

Saturday, June 24.

Hanoi hosted Hai Phong in a match featuring the top two finishers of V-League last season. It was one of the best comebacks in the history of the league, as Hanoi overcame a 15-point deficit to win the title by the margin of two goal difference.

This was one of the two matches I was able to attend this summer break because of the bizarre scheduling. The league was suspended on two separate occasions, from April to September, for international tournaments.

However, I was lucky enough to attend the premier fixture of the season. Hai Phong is known for its hardcore fanbase, who always bring an electrifying, intense, Eastern Europe-esque atmosphere to every game. The relative close distance between the two cities makes it possible for the traveling fans to attend the match.

Hanoi won the match, 2-0, despite playing a man down for more than an hour. However, what happened in the stands was more memorable than on the pitch. Seven thousand traveling fans took over the stadium. Drums and trumpets were played throughout 90 minutes. Flares were lit up. The explicit chants were sung. The atmosphere was so intense that the referee had to stop the second half for nearly 10 minutes because the away supporters threw bottles and flares to the pitch. Although the team lost the match, Hai Phong fans could be proud of themselves for creating one of the most epic atmospheres of the year.

“I don’t really mind seeing them light up the flares,” said a steward, who preferred not to reveal his name. I will address him as X from now on.

In Vietnam, flares are banned in every stadium. Therefore, X’s responsibilities force him to put off any flares he observes when he is on duty.

“It is their culture, their signature style,” X said. “If it is the way they want to show off their dedication to their football club, let them do it. We will just keep it in control. I signed up for this match just to enjoy the atmosphere, though it will be a long night.”

My friend Phan Minh Duc was the one who took me to the match. In fact, we had been looking forward to this long before I boarded the flight home because we were eager to be a part of the crowd.

“Flares, temper, parade, excitement, water bottles, fight.” Duc listed his priorities, “Then, the match.”

Duc and I were not the only supporters who came to the match to enjoy the atmosphere. Pham Quang Vu decided to make Hai Phong his first V-League match because he knew the traveling fans would be there.

“There is nothing much to ask for the players,” Vu said. “After all, this is Southeast Asia. This is V-League. You can’t ask for more than that from the players. But to be a part of this crowd, though I am a neutral fan, is something special.”

A week later, Hanoi hosted Khanh Hoa in the final match of the three-game stretch, before the league was suspended again.

This time, it was a one-man show.

There weren’t any traveling fans because the away team’s fanbase is located 1,100 kilometers south. This was an opportunity for the home team to find some redemption, after losing the stand to Hai Phong the previous week.

However, it was an opportunity passed.

Compared to the previous week, only one-third of Hanoi fans showed up. The match report said there were 500 people attended the match, though the exact number should be fewer.

The home crowd soon lost its will to support after Ha Noi went down, 0-3, after an hour.

The nostalgia from the previous weekday was still hanging around the supporters.

“Man, I truly missed the Hai Phong match,” said Vinh, a language instructor. “I mean, if I hadn’t forgotten the fixture, I would have gone last week rather than this,” Vinh said. “We knew Hai Phong would have been lit, so we should have come. Hai Phong has one of the most entertaining fanbases in the league. Although sometimes they are over-aggressive, people come to see how the away fans are going to pump up the stadium.”

A split in the local fans

“The Hai Phong game was the rivalry match, but Khanh Hoa is somewhat an unknown opponent,” Vinh said. “That’s why people don’t bother watching this game.”

My dad would have suggested otherwise.

“If you are a true fan, you have to watch the full 90 minutes regardless of the result. And watch every game regardless of the opponent.”

However, it is difficult to create a chemistry within the fanbase if you have two supporter groups with a complicated relationship, hence the difficulties of attracting local fans.

The two groups are known as “Hanoi FC supporters” and “Contras Hanoi”. Their respective theme colors are yellow and blue. Although they support the same football club, there is a distance between them.

The supporter group was founded about the same period with the football team. Initially, the club paid the group to attend the game. Most of the supporters were fans of some defunct Hanoi-based football clubs competed in V-League in the 1990s, 2000s. The head of the group, Manh “Beo” was the fan of military team The Cong F.C, now revived and known as Viettel Football Club. Locals mocked the members of the group as “plastic fans” as a result.

“He might be the most famous national football team fan,” said Tien Tran, editor-in-chief at Football Tribe Vietnam. “But when it comes to domestic football, many don’t like him.”

The Contras were founded about five to seven years later than the supporter group when the club has won its first league championship. Most of the members are teenagers who relocated to the capital city to go to university or to search for a better work opportunities. Their lack of connection causes a dismay to local people.

“In short, Hanoi has two fan bases who dislike each other,” Tran said. “The club has already suffered from limited support, and the divide between the supporters don’t really help them much.”

A struggle to boost attendance

Regardless of their allegiance, Hanoi fans understand they need to branch out and strengthen their fanbase.

The club has tried to boost the attendance for several seasons but received limited success. It has been playing in a possession based style a la Barcelona’s tiki-taka for the past few seasons to please the Vietnamese fans, who demand players being gentlemen on the field.

No time wasting, no two-footed aggressive tackle, no parking the bus. The team must dominate the midfield, control the ball, exchange passes and play killer balls to the box. How to appease 30 million football fans in Vietnam? Twenty-five national managers have failed to do so.

Hanoi FC is one of the few teams that are adapting to the possession style of play, while most of the V-League teams opt for the direct approach, utilizing the physical advantage of a foreign target man. Therefore, during the Ha Noi vs Hai Phong match, the home fans mocked the traveling team’s style of play.

“Just some random s*itty long ball to a striker,” the fans said.

Ralf Swift, an English tourist, was a part of the crowd trying to rally Ha Noi to overcome the three-goal deficit against Khanh Hoa.

“Ha Noi was the better team,” Swift said. “Hanoi had a lot of possession, they controlled the match. They just lack a striker who can convert chances. It is a style of play that fits Vietnamese players, who don’t have physicality but are gifted with technical ability.”

In the second minute of injury time, former Paris St. Germain striker Loris Arnauld pulled the deficit back to one. Swift was acting like he was waiting for a special moment from his favorite team, Manchester United, deep in the stoppage time: the trademark “Fergie Time” moment. He waved the hand, urging the players to charge forward. This was his first V-League match he attended.

“C’mon lads,” he shouted.

Arnauld scored the goal in the second of eight minutes added time, meaning Hanoi still had a chance to find the equalizer. However, for the next five minutes, Khanh Hoa goalkeeper laid down injured, halting the match and killing all the momentum of the home team. To be exact, the traveling team started time wasting from the 83rd minute, when the centerback Zarour was sent-off for a dangerous high kick.

“I get this is why your league isn’t watched by many people,” Swift said after the final whistle. “The better team played better football, but lost to a bunch of dirty players.”

Hanoi was founded in 2006 as Hanoi T&T for sponsorship reasons. In fact, the team was just renamed at the start of this season. There were two teams representing the capital city in the premier division of Vietnam football back then: Hanoi ACB and Hoa Phat Ha Noi. In addition, The Cong, the most popular club, was playing in the first division.

A fourth division team back then, it was inevitable that local fans weren’t aware of the team. Unfortunately, the team rose during the regression period of Vietnam football. Multiple teams folded, two major match fixing cases were investigated, the national team suffered a dip in form, attendance and attention to V-League dwindled. Hanoi suffered as collateral damage to the dying national league.

Probably, Vinh has summed it up.

“The ticket is 50,000 dong [equivalent to $2],” Vinh said. “The B-section is open for public. People don’t go to the game not because of the ticket price, that is certain. They haev lost their trust to the league. In the past, the players played for pride, achievement and for their hometown. Nowadays, players play for money, the league and everyone involved is eager to perform any match fixing. Money has torn the league apart.”

However, football isn’t dead in Vietnam. My Dinh National Stadium is sold out whenever the national team is on duty. The league, however, is sinking.

Trong Nhan Doan

Nhan Doan is an aspiring sports journalist currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. His philosophy of football is very simple: attack, attack and attack. For more information visiting his homepage:
Trong Nhan Doan

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