I’ve been to some massive football matches in my lifetime. The night that Luis Garcia did this against Chelsea, sending Liverpool to the European Cup Final (which we gloriously won, of course), I was there. I was behind the goal at Old Trafford when the same Luis Garcia did this in the FA Cup Semi Final, and I was at Cardiff a few weeks later, behind the goal when Steven Gerrard did this against West Ham.
I’ve seen some of the greatest football shows on earth: dozens of matches between Liverpool and Man Utd, both at Anfield and Old Trafford; Merseyside derby matches which we’ve won and lost; I’ve been to cup finals and followed Liverpool across Europe. I’m no stranger to seeing some of the biggest football shows on earth!
So last week I wasn’t sure how just excited I’d get at the (comparatively minor) prospect of watching Vietnam Under 19s against Japan Under 19s, at My Dinh national stadium in Hanoi. When I’ve spent all my life watching some of the world’s biggest football matches, how would this compare?
But I’ll admit that, as my motorbike drew towards the stadium, and the crowds grew thicker, and the stadium floodlights threw a crystal white dome into the black night sky above the ground, I did begin to feel really rather excited. I’d be lying if I said, at that moment, that I didn’t utterly and completely miss football games at home.
This game – this seemingly inconsequential U19 international – was actually a surprisingly big deal for the Vietnamese. The very smart looking 40,000 seat My Dinh stadium was full to capacity. The locals were in boisterous mood. A solid red block of fans in the stand opposite ours – apparently the official Vietnam fan club – spent much of the game starting Mexican waves. A chant translating into ‘Vietnam fighting’ rang around the stadium a few times over. It was all very exciting, apparently.
They cheered tackles, they cheered passes, they cheered shots. In fact they cheered pretty much everything – throw ins, goal kicks, corners, substitutions. It didn’t take much to get the home crowd excited.
Alas, they seemed to get excited at entirely different things to me: when the referee missed a glaring first half two-footed challenge from one of the Japanese players, I leapt to my feet complain in my very best squeaky scouse colourful language. At Anfield I’d have been one of thousands lending the referee the benefit of their opinion. But here I was one of… Well, one, and I found several Vietnamese chaps sitting around me wondering what the white guy was getting so worked up about, as the recently pole-axed midfielder was strapped onto a stretcher. I resumed my seat, and decided henceforth to keep my referee protests to a minimum, remembering as I did that I’m in a country that really doesn’t appreciate criticism of authority. In Vietnam, if the ref says it isn’t a foul, then it isn’t a foul, and that’s the end of that. Howard Webb should come here sometime.
The match itself was actually pretty good. This was two teams of Japanese and Vietnamese lads, Under 19. None of them seemed more than 6 feet tall, meaning there wasn’t a single long ball all game. Neither was there much passing along the ground, for that matter – the game seemed to be a case of one player trying to dribble the ball through the entire opposition; becoming dispossessed at some point along the way; and said opposition then trying to dribble the ball all the way back again. Defending on both sides was lax at times, simply non-existent at others. It made for quite an entertaining spectacle.
In the event, Vietnam took a first half lead with a very well taken goal from the edge of Japan’s box. The crowd went nuts. The players jumped around. The fan club started doing the Poznan. For a while it seemed like an unlikely victory might yet be taken.
But, alas, the Vietnamese didn’t really bother with the second half, and Japan rallied to score three second half goals to put the game beyond doubt. A late (and, I have to say, highly dubious) penalty for Vietnam made it 3-2, but there was no further injury-time rally, and the Japs took the spoils.
We left the ground, stopping for a drink on the way to miss the traffic. Don’t tell my Mum, but at home me and Dad used to go to the Wetherspoons on County Road to do this after game – have a few more pints, and then get home late complaining we’d actually been stuck in a traffic jam the whole time.
This time we just had sugarcane juice, sat on plastic stools on the central reservation of a dual carriage way. A very Vietnamese way to end a very Vietnamese football match.