Football victories show us what we’re missing as a society

By Nguyen Khac Giang   January 7, 2019 | 07:04 pm PT
We have more common causes than football victories; we need to identify those and build our social capital.
Researcher Nguyen Khac Giang

Researcher Nguyen Khac Giang

It was a Saturday evening. Across all big cities of Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate the AFF Cup victory of the Vietnamese men’s football team.

I was one of them. To be exact, I was stuck in the crowd and could not make it home after the match ended at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi. And it was that evening that I witnessed something I haven’t seen before: people in an urban area treating each other with understanding and kindness.  

Two luxury cars got into a fender bender, and what happened next was that the two drivers opened their windows, happily shook hands and kept driving. Those on motorbikes drove slowly, waving flags, shouting "Vietnam is champion" with big smiles on their faces, a scene completely different from what I usually see on the streets of Hanoi, when people keep beeping the horns and driving as fast as they can.

That an event can attract many to the streets is an opportunity for us to put into perspective the huge scale of a society with millions of people, not just figures on a piece of paper or digital news.

We saw that among the sea of humanity on the streets that day, not many people were there by themselves. They were there with loved ones, friends, colleagues, teammates or simply fans who were acquaintances.

These micro communities formed invisible cohesive blocks, creating a kind of order amidst the mayhem on the streets. They were not there for any economic or political purposes. Most of them were not blood relations. The one thing that brought them together was simply a mutual interest. In this case, football.

But we can only see this connection during the football season.

On the one hand, football shows that we can still be connected in a unified bloc by positive values. On the other hand, the scarcity of this connection proves one thing: the sense community has been absent at places and periods when it was needed the most.  

Events like becoming AFF Cup champions do not happen regularly, but instances of social failures are regular, everyday occurrences – be it our failure to save a child from getting heavily slapped by his friends and teachers, when a passerby decides to ignore or just takes photos of someone in trouble for a social media post or our everyday neglect of the fact that the environment we are living in is getting worse and worse.

"Decadent morality" is a term used often to explain such apathy and indifference. However, when it comes to ethics and culture, it is very difficult to give a clear explanation for one particular action. A few individuals will be publicly denounced and even investigated and punished, in certain instances. But do strict punishments make bad behavior disappear? What is the record on this, in our society and the world over?

Sociologists have given a concept to evaluate the society in a more rational way. They call it "social capital." The dictionary definition of this term is: the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. It pushes citizens to actively participate in public activities.

Where the social capital is high, people trust each other more, they can cooperate more easily and thus can reduce the transaction costs (for example: accessing loans without collaterals) and as a result, having positive impacts on economic development.

People of Hanoi take to the streets to celebrate the victory of Vietnamese mens football team on December 15, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

People of Hanoi take to the streets to celebrate the victory of Vietnamese men's football team on December 15, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Robert Putnam, an American political scientist, used to prove the role of social capital when analyzing the difference between the stable and wealthy northern Italy and the chaotic and poor southern Italy. The mafia grew strongly in the south because people there lacked trust in each other and in the authorities and therefore they have to rely on other powerful institutions. From there, Putnam concluded that a country can be prosperous only when it has high social capital.

Many negative stories of late are, I believe, a sign that faith in Vietnamese society has declined. Even worse, we are facing a crisis of values: Students and workers do not believe that schools, teachers and unions can save them from abuse, people do not believe that they can easily access loan from banks and thus they fall into the hands of the black market.

Even regarding football, in every article about every football victory carried by VnExpress, there are always some readers leaving comments expressing their worries for the next match.

How do we tap that worry and concern? It is a question of raising social capital, especially at a time when each person can survive in their own virtual cave on the Internet. Football victories are a spiritual boost for the community and even when it does not happen frequently, it can still open up many opportunities, showing that people can only enjoy each other when they know that they share something in common. Why can't thousands of clashes on the streets be handled by handshakes rather than punches?

Putnam said that institution plays a key role in building the value system so that each member of the community will have more faith in each other.

As in the story of Italy, a society ruled by a democratic system with complete respect for the law and active participation of the people will increase social capital. Because, whenever problems cannot be addressed by mutual respect, trust and faith in society, the government will be the last "support" for each individual. Then, when the government cannot perform its responsibilities and match their expectations, the people will rely on their own small communities, or on other power systems - like underground organizations.

We need to build social capital together, using all events like football victories to reconnect with each other. No one person can do it.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is a Vietnamese researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research. The opinions expressed are his own.

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