If we are game, football goes beyond skills and sporting spirit

By Gia Hien   January 27, 2019 | 07:09 pm PT
The Asian Cup 2019 has showed us more than good football matches, it has taught us empathy and unity.
Journalist Gia Hien

Journalist Gia Hien

I remember vividly the last ten minutes of the Asian Cup group stage match between Vietnam and Yemen on January 16. Vietnam was leading 2-0 and Yemeni players were going all out to score.

In the stadium in UAE, I was standing among thousands of Vietnamese supporters, screaming to support the national team. Amidst the frenzy, I glimpsed for a moment a Yemeni teenage girl – a typical Middle Eastern beauty, with a brown scarf covering her hair. The man sitting next to her must be her father, I guessed. From the way he was dressing, which was quite shabbily, I made another guess: they must be among 100,000 Yemeni laborers in Dubai.

As the game was coming to an end, the girl stopped watching and turned to toying with her ticket stub. A ticket costs AED60 (around $16). That sum is not small, and Yemeni people are not rich. Their nation has been torn by violent conflict since 2015.

In that short moment, seeing that Yemeni girl in a crowd of Vietnamese fans, I, a Vietnamese supporter who had traveled from far to be there for my national football team, suddenly felt biased against my own side.

Caught in the grip of violence foisted on the nation by more powerful countries for three years now, millions of people in Yemen have lost their homes and thousands upon thousands of children there have died from bombs, sickness, and hunger. I have no idea what the girl at the stadium has been through, and I did not allow myself to approach her and ask. I could only stand there, look at her and get emotional.

Vietnam won that day, but for me, my happiness and that girl’s sadness has equal meaning.

Yemen, or any country that is playing in the Asian Cup, wants to win every match. Yet, unlike countries that are developed and stable, where football is more entertainment than anything else, many Asian countries invest most of their aspirations in the game: all their emotions, hopes and pride, as also their aspirations for peace.

Vietnamese football fans in UAE during the match against Japan of Asian Cup 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Vietnamese football fans cheer at a stadium in the UAE during the Asian Cup 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

At this year’s Asian Cup, the Vietnamese national team got the chance to play against high quality opponents and made impressive progress. For Vietnamese fans, the benefits have gone further than the 90 minutes of the game. Thanks to this tournament, many Vietnamese people for the first time have paid attention to names that they’d never heard or cared about, like Oman, Yemen or Kyrgyzstan; they had not known that the United Arab Emirates is a union of seven kingdoms, that Dubai is one of them.

After the Round of 16, some Vietnamese fans even approached Jordanian supporters after the latter’s heart-breaking loss, which allowed Vietnam to go through to the quarterfinal.

With the Asian Cup, Vietnamese people have learnt what the international media is saying about Vietnam, instead of just hearing local media praising their national team. And from the outside world looking in, many more Asians have learnt more about Vietnam, some learning about us for the first time.

The Asian Cup created a field for all of Asia to communicate, and have non-political conversations that are even more valuable than talks among national leaders. Our politicians often talk about people-to-people connections. We saw the fostering of people-to-people connections at their best.

The tournament has seen South Koreans supporting the Vietnamese team, the Japanese team being surprised at the fact that there are fans in Thailand who are fond of the "Samurai Blue," and Chinese social media users praising the progress of their neighbors.

And of course, many people across Asia now remember the name Yemen. Behind those Yemeni football players are bullets, bombs, starvation, diseases, death. Their football team was formed by laborers who still have to struggle in their daily lives and do not even have a field to practice in. That story has inspired millions of people to think more about peace.

In the quarterfinal on Thursday night, the Vietnamese team lost, but there is nothing to feel sorry about. Japan deserved to go to the next round, they have played at a higher level.

If we are simply discussing sports and scores, we can only talk about Asian Cup for a short time. But if we think about the relations between nations, about the image of billions of people around the world looking at the screen and see the smiles and tears of people of other races, cultures and nations, then we can see a bigger meaning for the tournament.

After each match of Asian Cup 2019, the organizer, Asian Football Confederation, sends staff to form a long line near the stadium gate to high five all supporters, regardless of nationalities. It is a very beautiful, fair play image that sends the message of a united Asia.

At a time when the region and the world are witnessing tumultuous events, the Asian Cup 2019 has achieved what its slogan says: "Bringing Asia Together."

And if we are open to realizing the full potential of the game, we will understand why world renowned Indian saint, Swami Vivekananda, once said: "You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita."

*Gia Hien is a journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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