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A League of Its Own

After months of intrigue and turmoil, the V-League is kicking off two months late. Football fans are hoping that there will be no more disruptions and that the 12-team league will be as exciting as last season. Derek Milroy reports on what the future holds for the Beautiful Game in Vietnam. Photos by Alexandre Garel and Adam Astley

Last season’s title race could not have been scripted better and, although not in the same ballpark as the two Manchester clubs going head-to-head in England, it was arguably just as exciting.

The nation’s three biggest cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang all went into the final day knowing they could win the championship. Hanoi was top and only needed a draw against the Ho Chi Minh City team, Saigon, who had to win and have Danang lose — but if the central side did win and there was a stalemate in Saigon, they would be crowned winners.


The latter happened, and Danang won their second title in four years.

Turn the clock forward six months, and the never-ending economic slowdown resulted in local officials deciding to postpone the nation’s championship until Mar. 2 — with the number of teams going from 14 to 12 due to clubs suffering from financial uncertainty.

This season’s lin-up consists of Danang, Kien Giang, Long An, Thanh Hoa, Song Lam Nghe An, Hai Phong (who have taken the franchise of Khataco Khanh Hoa from Nha Trang), Hanoi T&T, Hoang Anh Gia Lai, Saigon XT, Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Ninh Binh. With one team being relegated and three being promoted from the First Division, there will be a 14-team league in 2014. In 2015, the league is expected to expand to 16.

Word tracked down local sports reporter, Thanh Nguyen, to clarify the goings-on over the last few months.

“The V-League has been through uncertain times for a number of months now and instead of kicking off in January, the league has been delayed,” he says of the recent turbulence. “Two football teams (ACB Hanoi and Hanoi FC) owned by disgraced mogul Nguyen Duc Kien, have officially withdrawn from the V-League and First Division Tournament 2013, meaning a lot of players will have to find new teams. Navibank Saigon has also folded.”

Officials from Vietnam Professional Football Company (VPF), the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF), football donors and local officials have been frantically trying to help local teams out. There are also new regulations on the number of foreign players and the age limit of domestic players with regards to transfers. With 30 players in a team on average, the V-League and First Division Tournament have more than 200 players who are now jobless.

A Great Migration

This cull of players in nothing new to football, but this time it has not only affected the little-known and young players. Stars who are members of the national team who are currently unemployed include top striker Le Cong Vinh of Hanoi T&T and Doan Viet Cuong of Saigon Xuan Thanh.


Song Lam Nghe An FC was close to dissolving but has survived, a relief to their huge and loyal fan base. After some haggling, national midfielders Nguyen Trong Hoang, Nguyen Dinh Dong and Au Van Hoan reached an agreement with the team.


This turmoil has been bad for the players, but good for sports reporters.


“The most outstanding story is the case of national striker Le Cong Vinh, who is the glamour boy of Vietnamese football,” Thanh says. “He admits his chances of playing in the V-League this season are very slim. No club will be able to afford a transfer fee of hundreds of thousands of US dollars to buy him, despite being without a club. He will almost certainly go to a sports college while trying to maintain his form to look for opportunities in the next season.”


But Thanh also describes with some sadness the absurdity of another case.


“The most tragic story is of national striker Quang Hai who has a real dilemma because his team, Navibank Saigon, was disbanded. If he wants to join a new team, he or his new club will have to pay VND3.5 billion in compensation as he is in debt to the team. Quang Hai said he has had to sell his motorbike to pay debts and support his family.”


Saigon XT have also had enough with national defender Viet Cuong, who has been put up for sale after suffering from the ‘Primadona disease’, an affliction we associate with the likes of Carlos Tevez. In this case, the lazy star used an alleged illness as an excuse for not training with the city side.


Saigon has only been in existence for two years but it’s been a terrific 24 months for the city club. They ran away with the First Division title last season and only lost out on the league title on the last day. But they unexpectedly won the National Cup — beating Hanoi T&T, one of the country’s most successful sides in recent years, 4-1 in the final at Thong Nhat Stadium a week later. However, they might suffer this season, as they have lost some of their highly-paid foreign stars.
Striker Van Quyen has been let go from Song Lam Nghe An due to a dip in form, but minnows Ninh Binh FC seem keen to give him a helping hand. That would result in a huge drop in club and wages for the former Vietnam star.


Thanh Luong, another player from Vietnam’s national squad, is fortunate in that Hanoi T&T paid VND3 billion (about US$144,000) to take him from the recently disbanded Hanoi FC.


The Long Road Back


Hanoi T&T striker Thach Bao Khanh, 33, insists Vietnam’s top clubs need to get their houses in order to ensure the survival of the V-League. But providing the VFF can improve quality and professionalism both on and off the pitch, he remains optimistic about the future of the game.


“Reform is needed in our game but I think it will be gradual,” he says. “It’s the Vietnamese way. The individual teams have to put in a great effort to ensure the finance is there to continue for the long-term. Since we introduced the V-League ten years [ago] it has definitely helped improve the quality of [football in Vietnam].”


Khanh is convinced the reduction in the number of teams this season will mean it will be more competitive, with every game becoming a mini ‘cup final’. He is hoping Hanoi T&T can add to their only title win in 2010, as one of the newest clubs in the V-League. They have also been runners-up in the last two seasons.


“The number of teams being reduced is not necessarily synonymous with reducing quality and after being runners-up with the last two years, we are hoping to go one better this season,” he says.


VFF has made a bold decision to invite Kazuyoshi Tanabe to be their deputy director in the 2013 season. The Japanese official will take responsibility for the organisation of the national football leagues, and is expected to heighten the quality and competitiveness of tournaments and matches, attracting spectators back to stadiums.


Meanwhile, this season Vietnam Export Import Commercial Joint Stock Bank (Eximbank) will sponsor the National Football Championship, V-League, the First Division football and National Football Cup, after the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) and Eximbank signed an agreement in Ho Chi Minh City.


Under the contract, Eximbank becomes the first-ever sponsor of the three big tournaments and this is the third consecutive year of V-League sponsorship by the firm.


Building the Future


Based in Pleiku in the Central Highlands, Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal JMG Academy is the only operational football academy in Vietnam at this moment. The academy is a cooperation between Premiership giants Arsenal and privately-owned Vietnamese corporation Hoang Anh Gia Lai, and it will hopefully help produce Vietnamese stars of the future.


To help bring through young players, a new V-League regulation states that each team must have at least three Vietnamese players aged 23 and under registered in matchday squads of 20 for every league game. Under new rules of the Vietnam Professional Football JSC (VPF), the 2013 season will restrict the number of foreign players in the V-League to three per team squad.


Thanh sees the current uncertainty as a good thing for these future stars.


“One thing which will also help the young players come through is the fact that due to a cut in wages this season, a lot of foreign players have left Vietnam to seek opportunities elsewhere,” he says. “Those who stay have to accept a significant reduction of salary. Over the years wage cuts have led to foreign players moving to other countries in the region such as Thailand and Malaysia.”