When we started playing football on a Wednesday night, we didn't expect it would lead to us playing an 11-a-side match in the stadium of a professional Vietnamese team.
Photos by Hannah Meldrum. Additional photos by Elle Chambers, Simon Edwards, Katie Russell and Geri Ryall.
Teaching English in Hanoi, where changes in schedule and teaching times are the norm, is a hectic lifestyle. Since my first week in our Trung Hoa apartment, Wednesday night football has been one of the few constants. Until last September, I hadn’t played regular football since sixth-form; the last game I remember playing was an eccentric warm up at my karate club in Bad Godesberg, where we played with two balls and had to hold hands with another person. Wednesday night football has been a way of bonding with my flatmates, meeting Vietnamese people, and exercising in a city where going for a run requires a car or motorbike.
During our first weekend in Trung Hoa, Pham Van Anh, a teaching assistant who organises weekly football games between expats and Vietnamese people, invited my friends to a potentially title-deciding match in her hometown. Her team (and now ours) is the “Hero Miner” Than Quang Ninh, based in the town of Cam Pha, Quang Ninh Province, past Ha Long Bay; her brother is involved in the Supporters' Club and used to be its vice-president. (Quang Ninh lost 1-0 to Hanoi T&T and finished fourth in the V-League).
Although I wasn’t there, the Quang Ninh fans were very excited to have foreign visitors, and invited my friends to eat and drink with them before and after the game. They obviously made quite an impression; reporters asked them for their insights prior to the match, and the person who leads the chanting (at Vietnamese football matches, drums are banged, flares are lit, and a supporter at the front leads the fans in different chants and songs) handed a megaphone to my flatmate Leo (no. 8, attacking midfielder with flair), who started a chant then followed it up with a chorus of Viet Nam Ho Chi Minh.
Everyone enjoyed the weekend so much that there was talk of a return to Cam Pha to watch another match, and eventually Van Anh came to my flatmate Rob (no. 5, commanding central midfielder) with the suggestion that, if we could find enough people, we could return to Cam Pha, visit the hot springs, stay overnight and play an eleven-a-side match against the Quang Ninh fans and board members.
Eleven of us who play regular football volunteered for the match, and Dom Marshall, a defensive rock from Aberdeen who had picked up a knee injury not long after arriving in Hanoi, took on the role of our manager. Alex Ferguson impressions were a major part of our preparations.
I should make it clear at this point that while we didn't actually play against Than Quang Ninh, our opponents do play regular 11-a-side football together and are very fit; on the other hand, while most of my friends are good footballers, some of us had never played on a full-sized pitch (I realised on the morning of the game that I think of the offside rule as something that applies to professional footballers, and only to me when I play FIFA.)
As the discussion went on- Van Anh arranged a bus to bring us to Cam Pha and a hotel to stay in- everything scaled up. We needed shirts to play in and a pitch to play on. A few of us already had Vietnam National Team kits, so we decided would play in that, red to contrast with Quang Ninh’s blue. We had names and numbers printed, and started inviting our friends to come with us. Then, in the middle of discussing presents for the chairman, Trung Tran, Van Anh and her brother the news came through that we would play on Quang Ninh’s pitch.
For context, Quang Ninh are a professional team with the pitch voted the best in Vietnam. Their stadium seats 10,000 people. If you assume that the team that finished fourth in the V-League matches up to the corresponding team in the Premier League, then this is Vietnam’s Etihad (St James' Park might be a better comparison, but you get the idea). The team photo at the top of this article caused something of a sensation on Quang Ninh’s social media. We sat down together and went over squad numbers and positions. A Facebook event- Super Sunday- Than Quang Ninh vs Western TEFL United FC was created, though we eventually got the name changed to the slightly slicker "Western Teachers United FC".
At this point I must thank our English teacher friends in Hanoi; about 20 of them decided to spend up their weekends travelling to Cam Pha with us, get up early on Sunday to watch the match, and buy their own Vietnam kits to make a red wall (nothing to do with a popular series of children’s books) to rival Quang Ninh’s blue, and even make up chants for each of us (mine is “Here comes Jack/ on the right track”, but “Jon Melloy, Oi Gioi Oi!” is a favourite). We set off early on Saturday morning, with snacks for the bus and an indie/ football-related playlist, stopping off at a service station- cum- crafts shop that sold immense marble statues and beautiful weavings for huge prices, and ships them all over the world. Most of the journey was through small towns, past concrete pavements, shopfronts and bia hois, and eventually past Ha Long Bay itself. I was excited to see some falcons perching on cables in the countryside.
Which brings me to hijack the blog to tell you about the most remarkable thing that I’ve seen in Vietnam. On the coach journey, looking out of the window, I saw an ostrich. It was sitting down, black feathers spread around its body like a pantomime dame’s dress, glossy and almost shiny against the concrete, long neck erect. It was sitting on its own, not obviously guarded or looked after by anyone; there was no pen around it, nor a rope tying it to anything. It’s common to drive past duck and chicken farms between cities, and other people have seen dog farms in the countryside, but this ostrich was alone, completely anomalous. I couldn’t say where we were at the time, only that we were between Hanoi and Ha Long City, which is a good three hour portion of the journey. I turned around to James (no. 4, centre-back) sitting behind me, desperately seeking confirmation that I wasn’t seeing strange omens like Vincent Cassel’s character in La Haine, and he had seen it too. What kind of omen would an ostrich be, anyway? That we should prepare to run fast in hot conditions? That, as Nigel Pearson called a journalist an ostrich, we were going to “do a Leicester” and upset the more fancied opposition?
For anyone who doesn’t know me, I should clarify that I know what an ostrich looks like. In all probability, you will not and cannot outbird me. I know where in the world ostriches live. I can more readily accept that my mind might be playing tricks than that I could mistake anything else for a live ostrich. And if you can find a bird indigenous to Vietnam that one could realistically mistake for an ostrich, I’d like to see it.
It was early afternoon when we got to Cam Pha, pulling up outside the stadium, where Van Anh’s brother welcomed us. We checked in to the hostel, then left for a meal (rice, fried sweet potato, fried corn and beer from metal kegs). From there, we went to Cam Pha’s renowned hot springs; where we had been expecting to swim in a natural spring in the countryside, this turned out to be an extremely (uncomfortably) hot swimming pool. Stepping into it, once I had got over the initial pain, relaxed my muscles so intensely that I felt quite helpless, though pleasantly so. We attracted a lot of attention from the Vietnamese visitors, though we didn't stay long (Van Anh said that we shouldn't spend more than 15 minutes in the water because of the minerals).
When we returned to town and parked outside the stadium, our name was spelled out in moving letters on the stadium- Quang Ninh FC welcomes Western Teachers United! One ten-year-old boy, outside the stadium with his family, reacted to the site of 30 or so foreigners, many of us wearing Quang Ninh shirts, by shouting “Oh my shit!”
We split our time between the club shop, the bia hoi/ food stall showing the Vietnam match (the national team played out a nil-nil draw with J-League club Avispa Fukuoka), and some street Frisbee. Most importantly, though, we had the chance to go inside the stadium and check out the turf.
The grass- which was different to the grass in Hanoi's stadium, or the national team's one in My Dinh, being partly made up of weeds, was fairly long, and in the evening, it was muddy, almost boggy in places. Although the ground wasn’t as big as a Premier League stadium, the size of the pitch carried a rarefied, official feel. When I went to one touchline and looked at the distance to the other- hard to make out in the darkness- it brought home how far there was to run, and the skill you’d need to play an accurate pass from one end to the other. We threw the Frisbee back and forth, and I stalked up and down the left flank, trying to imagine taking on defenders or, more likely, closing them down.
At the end of the Vietnam match, we headed off to eat again, where we had bread with tender, fatty pork skewers and a sweet marinade that smelled vaguely peanutty. All the players went to bed early, though I struggled to sleep with the mixture of nerves and the noisy chickens outside my room (because cocks don’t crow at dawn, they crow at four in the morning, at great length, before it’s light).
I was tense on the morning of the game. We started the day with an early egg bánh mì, then headed to the stadium. In the light, the pitch had dried, and didn’t look so dramatic. We sat in the centre circle, where Dom told us to take pride in the team, and gave Rob the armband. We practised attack against defence, then some set-pieces. Our support arrived, beers in hand, filling two rows with bright red Vietnam shirts and noise.
Time passed quickly, and soon the sun was high in the sky and it was surprisingly hot (the week before, Hanoi had had a cold snap in the low twenties, which feels much colder than it sounds). Just before the nine o’clock kick-off, Quang Ninh and their fans arrived. They had nearly as many fans as our travellers, plus enough substitutes on the bench to make a full second team; some of them were academy players. The referee and linesmen appeared too, in official black.
It was a strange moment to go down the tunnel, then turn around and walk out of it again to the sound of chanting, shake hands with the referee and the other team, and kick off.
Playing on a full-sized pitch, I found out how much of the game is off the ball, and how important fitness is; I spent my time running down the left to give an option, getting tight to opposing midfielders and full-backs, and dropping back when Quang Ninh had the ball. We had a couple of chances straight away; Paice (no. 9, tenacious target man) was flagged offside in a good position, and Martin (no. 10, skilful attacker) burst into the edge of the area, but the keeper saved his shot.
Once Quang Ninh got the ball, the quality was clear; they were comfortable passing it around, used to the larger pitch, and far fitter than we were, especially in the heat. They built attacks patiently, then broke into the box suddenly. We were kept busy containing them, Gibbins and Vladimirovich at centre-back making tough tackles and Barnard making a few saves, and when we won the ball back and started an attack down the right, they had a few players between Martin and the goal. I came off after 15 minutes (we would have rolling substitutions) and I can only remember touching the ball once in the first half, a volleyed clearance on the edge of the box. They scored three well-taken goals, and at half-time we were ready to make some changes.
I can only speak generally about our gameplan, as we had 15 players and rolling substitutes, and the second half is a bit of a blur; I keep picturing Tam (a skilful Vietnamese attacker who joined us for the weekend), Paice, Martin and Parry to my left, and Aitken (another English teacher who had joined us) in front of me, when we probably didn’t have that many attacking players on the field at once. Paice and Martin dropped back to left and central attacking midfield to fight for the ball there, trusting Aitken to fend for himself up front. Tam improved after moving inside from the wing and linked up well with Aitken and Martin, and we came back into the game. Chien (also Vietnamese and up from Hanoi for the weekend) slotted in at centre-back and Gibbins gave us better movement on the ball in midfield. I moved onto the right wing, where Melloy at right-back was able to shout when to drop, press and make runs, and I felt much more assured there, even if most of what I did was still off the ball running.
Quang Ninh scored a fourth against the run of play, the chairman Trung getting on the scoresheet, after Aitken had hit the post, and soon, we were on the attack again; Paice put in a cross from deep that the keeper didn’t claim, and it dropped perfectly for Aitken to score.
Soon he had it in the net again, and the mood was much better as we looked for a third and fourth goal. Paice received a soft yellow card after an aerial challenge with Trung, much to our confusion.
I must have gone off again around this point, more exhausted than I would have believed, and more than a little bit sunburnt. Quang Ninh scored a fifth and the game ended soon after, and we walked away knowing that we had made them work for their 5-2 win.
- Barnard (goalkeeper/ midfield) – assured performance in goal. Darren Barnard made saves throughout and organised the defence.
- Melloy (right-back) - a calming influence at the back, Jon Melloy’s organisational skills were essential to team Teachers’ determined defence.
- Costello (left-back/ left wing) - the only left-footer, Frank Costello offered a unique attacking outlet, especially after moving to an advanced position late in the game.
- Gibbins (centre-back/ defensive midfield) – James Gibbins put in a calm, assertive performance with a few crunching tackles.
- Gooding (captain, defensive midfield/ central midfield)- Rob Gooding made some excellent tackles and kept the team ticking over in midfield.
- Nuttgens (left wing/ right wing)- Jack Nuttgens put in a disciplined performance. Linked up well with Melloy in the second half.
- Vladimirovich Ivanov- (centre back) team-voted man of the match. Made several top class sliding tackles; you would not believe that Alex Vlad had never played regular football until a few months before.
- Parry- (central midfield/ right-back/ goalkeeper) mercurial midfielder Leo Parry was an essential cog in the attacking wheel, especially in the second half.
- Paice (centre-forward/ left wing) Josh Paice came into his own with a combative performance on the wing. Provided the cross for the first goal.
- Martin (central attacking midfield)- George Martin a constant threat who stretched the Quang Ninh defence. Unlucky not to win a penalty in the second half.
- Edwards (right wing/ left wing) – Simon Edwards harried the Quang Ninh defence with his tireless running.
- Webb (right-back)- Alex Webb slotted in comfortably at right-back.
- Aitken (striker) -A last-minute addition to the matchday squad, Zach Aitken’s ability on the ball led to him being a constant menace to TQN’s defence, and his hard work was rewarded with two goals. Also hit the inside of the post.
- Chien (centre-back) - in defence, his ability on the ball helped to build from the back.
- Tam Vu- (striker/ central attacking midfield)- a dangerous attacking outlet, involved in most of Western Teachers’ attacks. .
Manager: Marshall- absolutely outstanding.
After the big match, we went to a restaurant. Trung had put down a hefty tab for beer, and they had laid on whole quails on spits, chicken off the bone, salad and sushi. Outside the restaurant was a big blown-up poster of the stadium, the Quang Ninh team, and the TEFLers from the original Cam Pha trip. I was tired, dehydrated and soon became quite tipsy, especially with Trung and some of the other Quang Ninh fans going around toasting tram-a-trams (Vietnamese for downing a drink). The party soon went outside (still in the now quite intense heat), they put on music, and before long it was time to travel back on the coach. I didn’t see anything unusual on the coach back, but I was shattered by the time we got home in the evening.
Since the match, we have become a team (or more usually, pair of teams) to be feared at Wednesday night football, especially in the immediate aftermath. Playing in a stadium that size was a privilege, and that so many people came with for the weekend was incredible.
To finish up, I’d like to thank Trung and Van Anh’s brother for giving us the chance to play in a professional stadium and making us welcome for the weekend, Van Anh for arranging the match, the transport and the hotel, Rob for organising us, everyone who came to watch and cheer us on, and Hannah for taking fantastic action shots of the game.