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The Bleak Future of Vietnam's Franchise Football

In the age of franchise football, Vietnamese clubs are struggling to maintain loyal spectators and economically viable teams. Can Vietnam transform its approach to football, fans, and the future of the sport in the country?

In 2016, the owners of Hanoi FC decided that something had to change: game attendance in the capital had plummeted, and it was thought that one of the main reasons was an abundance of teams based in and around the city. To this end, Hanoi FC was relocated mid-season to Ho Chi Minh City and renamed Saigon FC. They would play their home games at Thong Nhat Stadium, also home to the already established Ho Chi Minh City FC, and the new team would follow a modern, youth-oriented approach to marketing.

In its first season, the new club kept the famous pink jerseys of Hanoi FC, boasting a squad of 26 Vietnamese players, most of whom came from the north of Vietnam, plus two foreigners.  

There wasn’t much media fanfare; rather, it was all kept a little under the radar. Some have since speculated that perhaps the lack of attention came from fears of low attendance during the first home game, or that Vietnam Professional Football (VPF) were still a little embarrassed by a team moving cities, changing stadiums and swapping out players halfway through a season.

However, the 80-strong security team on duty for the first home game was slightly overwhelmed as, slowly but surely, the stadium began to fill. Fifteen minutes before kick-off, some 3,000 fans had taken their seats on the red-hot concrete terraces. They kept coming; for the next 20 minutes, the flow of young people continued and the stands swelled. By the time the first scoring chance had fallen to the day's opposition, Quang Nam FC, some 8,000 fans had found their way into the stadium, all smiling, happy and wanting to see a new team.

The future looked bright: the first game was well-attended; the early results on the field were generally positive and the only other team in the city was languishing in V.League 2.

Photo via Mai Vang.

However, anyone who watches football regularly in Vietnam – and, indeed, around the world – will tell you that in developing countries, it’s hard to keep the fans interested and coming through the turnstiles week-in, week-out.

Now, a year after Hanoi FC made the decision to move 1,000 miles south and change its name to Saigon FC, things are not looking as bright as they had at the start. Despite having a modern, forward-thinking social media team, Saigon FC has struggled to find a fanbase. The first game hosted some 8,000 fans interested in seeing a new team and wanting to be entertained; however, attendance has since slumped.

In one of the final games before the mid-season break, Saigon hosted Can Tho at Thong Nhat Stadium, knowing that a victory would help them share the top of the table. While the VPF reported attendance of 1,000, many news reports put the number of spectators at around 350; however that, too, may have been an exaggeration.

From match day one to match day 13, attendance by Saigon FC fans dwindled by the game. Despite hired cheerleaders, the fans simply were not interested anymore. The “new team” buzz had evaporated. Meanwhile, the more well-established Ho Chi Minh City FC (formerly Saigon Port) also saw attendees slowly drop during the season; however, they only dropped from 5,000 to around 3,500 per game, primarily since the team had just been promoted the season before and was having a somewhat mediocre season.

For many fans, the main reason for this lack of attendance was the quality of football. The inexperienced coach of Saigon FC, Nguyen Duc Thang, had been given a straightforward brief from the suits at the club – “don’t lose games, and win when possible” – this mantra had resulted in a style of football not typically seen within Vietnam. The football was defensive, and the main tactic was kick long to the big man up front – though successful, it simply wasn’t enough to keep the fans coming to the stadium.

Despite poor attendance for Saigon FC, many Vietnamese football websites and dedicated football groups on Facebook remain quiet on the issue. Nobody seems at all worried or concerned about the financial viability of the club, the political rumblings in the background, or the success of the move in the grander scheme of things. Perhaps ignorance is bliss; if we don’t talk about it, it isn’t a problem.

Saigon FC’s owners are a wealthy group of businessmen with numerous financial interests, some of them outside of football, yet there is only so much money one can lose before interest wanes and the owners move on to their other businesses. If attendance in the final stretch of the season does not improve – and the prediction is bleak – it’s possible that the club could disband overnight. This wouldn't be the first time this has happened in Vietnam, and poorly paid players and staff would once again be left without a club and desperate to find employment, on or off the field.

If – and it still is an if – Saigon FC does fail, perhaps this will finally be the message the governing bodies need: franchise football does not work. Football clubs represent a community, a village, a town or a city. They are not organizations that can be picked up and moved around the map in order to fill holes; they are clubs generated from the bottom-up, groups of like-minded locals who band together to form and watch their local team.

Ho Chi Minh City is the most populous city in Vietnam, and there is certainly room for more than one top-flight team. If the Vietnam Football Federation or VPF are adamant about having more teams, then it should invest in the teams that already play in the city, teams that already have a community around them and a fanbase wanting to support their team, regardless of the results.  

[Top photo via Doi Song]

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