Vietnamese football: Fans are important, but they should’t fan flames

By Truong Anh Ngoc   November 12, 2018 | 05:37 pm PT
One issue that should not flare up in Vietnamese football is the lighting of flares and other unsporting behaviors.
Journalist Truong Anh Ngoc

Truong Anh Ngoc, journalist

We’ve been talking a lot about Vietnamese football players, given all the improvement they showed so far at the U23 Asian Cup in January and then the Asian Games in August.

Now with the ongoing AFF Cup 2018, the talk about our players continues. But not enough time is spent on the 12th player, Vietnamese supporters, who are a significant part of the team's strength with a "competitive attitude" that rubs off on the team.

In early 2009, I watched a Serie A match between Roma and Milan in Italy.

Audiences had been warned that the game could get "quite dangerous," that clashes could break out between supporters of the two teams.

That day at the Olimpico stadium, an empty stand audience was arranged between two stands filled with supporters of the two teams. I sat in one of the two stands, observing the match in a tense atmosphere that had been described by the media as a "deadly specialty" of Italian football: scuffles among fans and smoking flares all over the place.

Before that game, I’d seen fighting happen right on the football field, police using tear gas and water cannons and ambulances rushing to and fro.

I had also seen the use of flares on TV. There have been cases in which fans threw flares on to the field and the organizer had to put the game on hold to deal with them, and there have been instances when flares have been thrown between stands, resulting in people dying.

On that day at the Olimpico stadium, I got a taste of the fear first hand. A group of Italians and I had to run for our lives when a flare from the other side flew towards us. Flames spread out when the flare fell on our seats.

The match was not paused that day, but fans watched the rest of it in tension, worried if another flare would land in their midst.

Violence and disruptive behavior like throwing flares have been blamed for Serie A attracting less and less spectators. They are afraid. They do not know what will happen to them.

That feeling returned recently when I saw Vietnamese supporters light flares at a stadium in Indonesia during the Asian Games in August.

A Vietnamese supporter holds a burning flare at a stadium in Indonesia when Vietnam played against South Korea at the semi-final of Asian Games on August 29. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

A Vietnamese fan holds a burning flare at a stadium in Indonesia as Vietnam played South Korea in the Asiad 2018 semi-final on August 29. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

I also saw a photo of another supporter, with the national flag wrapped around his head, a burning flare in his hand and a bright smile on his face. I do not understand what he’s smiling about. What could possibly make him feel so satisfied? Was he aware that his actions posed a lot of risk for himself and other people around him?

The Vietnam Football Federation was fined $12,500 after a Vietnamese fan violated regulations by lighting flares at the Asiad 2018 semifinal game between Vietnam and South Korea on August 29.

Earlier, the federation had been fined $15,000 after another Vietnamese fan burned a flare in Cambodia at a qualifying game last year for the Asian Games 2018.

Such fines of thousands of dollars relate to a flare that cannot cost more than VND1 million ($43). And it does not stop there. The financial penalty is always levied with other warnings: if repeated, the punishment would be more serious, including the banning of Vietnamese fans at such games in the future, even when they are hosted in Vietnam.

What would it be like if Vietnamese team plays an international tournament match at the My Dinh Stadium in the capital city of Hanoi, and no Vietnamese fan is allowed to be there, just because another fan has had fun and excitement by burning flares?

Picture of fans dyeing a stadium corner red with flares is not a strange sight at the Vietnamese National Football Championship (V-League) matches anymore. Some supporters from the northern Hai Phong City even consider burning flares their "signature."

Who were they taking their cue from? Fans in Italy? If they can watch the Italian fans burn flares, haven’t they watched the mayhem that has followed as well?

Some football federations have been trying to ban flares.

The Italian federation has come up with several solutions, starting with getting tough at clubs, where fans have been fined not for just lighting flares and firecrackers but also because of violent actions on the field and racist attitudes.

The IDs of such people are published in the media and depending on the gravity of their actions, they can be banned from entering stadiums and even face prosecution.

So why does "flare culture" burn strong in Vietnam? The VFF does not want to be heavy handed. It has decided to ignore those violations in a sporting spirit.

So far, VFF has handled cases by fining match organizers and clubs for allowing fans to commit the violation. But the fine is low, at VND20 million ($858), and that is not tough enough.

There’s one thing that the VFF has not done. Finding and publishing ID information who repeat offenders. This is what has allowed Vietnamese fans to burn flares at stadiums abroad.

If this approach is persisted with, we might soon have a scenario where Vietnamese football lovers have only one option left to watch games of the national team: sitting in front of a TV screen.

*Truong Anh Ngoc 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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