Two summers ago, Vietnam was in the throes of a series of protests: this time, in reaction to the fish deaths along some of the coastal areas. Widespread, emotional, and nationalistic, the protests were nonetheless carefully monitored and even partially suppressed by the government.  In the last two weeks, and especially since last Saturday (January 20), intense nationalism has again shown up on the streets of Vietnam, but for a different reason: the national men’s soccer team kept advancing in the third Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship tournament.

In fact, it has advanced all the way to the championship match scheduled to start in approximately four hours as of this writing. This time, the government is fully on board and the Vietnamese people have been utterly exuberant. Not since the Southeast Asian Games in late 2003, when the men’s team won the silver medal, that the country has seen so much open celebrations and excitement. (The women’s team won the gold medal back then, but the effects were not the same.)  

The popular singer Vicky Nhung joins in the massive nation-wide celebration after Vietnam defeated Qatar in one of the semifinals. ~ pc

This month’s celebrations must have surpassed those from December 2003. (Or, possibly, after the team won the Suzuki Cup in December 2008? But the scale of that tournament was a lot smaller.)  From Hanoi, a fellow historian sent the following description in response to a question I asked on the Vietnam Studies Group listserv:

On Tuesday [we] were winding up a pleasant day at the Trang An grottoes when news of the victory arrived. It was signaled by a deafening roar from a crowd packed into a café near the parking lot. Not long on the road back to Hanoi, cars appeared with flag poles extended out of the windows. It was bedlam when we crossed into the city, with huge crowds everywhere, school children on the sidewalks jumping and shouting, chants filling the air, drums beating, daredevil scooter drivers, steering with one hand, waving flags with the other, and shooting through whatever tiny openings were provided by cars, trucks, and buses. Two guys on scooters roared past holding up a huge flag on poles as they drove along on either side of a row of cars. Everyone was headed for Hoan Kiem Lake, people said it would be the biggest turnout “since Liberation.” 

Surrounded by the madness all around, the street clogged worse than the height of rush hour, I thought somebody is bound to get hurt and couldn’t imagine how police would contain the crowds that would eventually converge at the rally point. But when I said something to my brother-in-law, who was driving, he momentarily calmed down and pointed out that the police (whose presence I had not noticed) were doing a good job, firmly controlling intersections, enforcing red lights, and preventing traffic from concealing into a hopeless gridlock. 

I don’t know what happened later, but as we finally made it to the alleyway home, the mood was peaceful, yet festive, with people in their front rooms and pedestrians outside exchanged congratulations. Some teenagers were wearing red tee-shirts with yellow stars, the kind of gear that seems to appear as if by magic moments after Boston teams win championships. Soccer crowds can go off the rails and who know what will happen, win or lose, on Saturday. But I thought it was a happy scene.

The exuberance has not been without controversies. Many Vietnamese, for instance, criticized several young women that replaced their bras and underwear with the national flag when parading on mopeds after the quarterfinal win.  Then in the last three days, many have been angry at a white American, an English teacher and creator of popular YouTube video on the subject, for having insulted the late General Võ Nguyên Giáp on Facebook when commenting on the current success of the national team. For the most part, though, the focus has been on the team’s advancement and the powerful collective emotions it has unleashed, especially pride and happiness.

Why the unbridled enthusiasm? Why the overwhelming euphoria? Ironically, attendance of the tournament itself has been sparse, and the clips that I’ve seen were apparently framed to avoid showing empty benches as much as possible. The tournament is held in China this year, and each of the matches involving the host country drew over 10,000 spectators. Most of the rest, however, saw fewer than 1000 people in the stands. Thailand is typically the top team from Southeast Asia, but its match against Palestine drew only 120 people. Figures from the two previous tournaments were even lower than this year’s edition.  

The contrast between field and fans, I think, points at the power of technology, media, and social media.  I understand that not all scholars, including my historian friend Shawn McHale, are on board with Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism that attributes the spread of the national “imagined community” to print capitalism. But I also think that live broadcasts and live streaming, in this case and perhaps many others, have been effective as instruments for rallying the imagined community (or, depending on how you look at it, a real community). 

Second, there is a very large historical literature on modern sports and nationalism, and this literature should help to shed light on the Vietnamese case.  I am not too knowledgeable of this literature, but the little I know about the history of the modern Olympics indicates that nationalism has long characterized modern sport competitions. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Britain is usually credited for having been the first to form national athletic organizations: golf, cricket, soccer, and horse-racing. The British elite employed sports to promote muscular Christianity, manly virtues, and imperial building. Physical education became compulsory while cricket and rugby were exported to the colonies. Long before international competitions of the modern Olympics, many “Olympic games” were held in different parts of the country. 

It’s true that the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was a Frenchman. But he was also a fierce Anglophone, and it was military defeats on the part of France that prompted his quest for a new model and led him to visits of English boarding schools. On that note, I learned recently that some of Lord Byron’s happiest memories of his time at boarding school was playing cricket. It sounds pretty remarkable because he was lame on one foot and had to have someone run for him, ha!

Even there, the roots of the modern Olympics rested not only among the British and the French. Byron went to Greece to lend a hand in the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, and it was indeed a Greek that raised the idea of an Olympic revival thirty years before de Coubertin was born. The fact that the fellow was Greek was perhaps less important than the fact that he raised this idea one year after his country won the War of Independence. There, nationalism, nationalism, nationalism!

Then there was the Irish independence movement that attempted to revive traditional Gaelic games on the face of popular modern (British) sports. Or the Flemish Movement in Belgium, whose students at the Catholic University of Leuven embraced French bicycling, promoted traditional games such as popinjay shooting, and largely rejected rowing and other “snobbish” British sports. (“Largely” but not “completely” because they couldn’t resist the pull of soccer and eventually found a clever way to integrate the game into their recreation.) Turning to Asia, there were vigorous debates among the Chinese during the early Republican period over the place of physical education and military training in schools. (A loud yes on the former; a mixed response to the latter.) It is pretty telling that those debates occurred shortly after the May Fourth Movement and the May Thirtieth Incident: both huge historical events that fueled further Chinese nationalism. Then the fact that physical education and military training were considered together – in the Chinese case, the British case, and other cases – may explain that for many countries, national sport teams stand second only to their military as a symbol of national pride (or, sometimes, national humility or humiliation).

What am I getting at? I think that the present exhilaration in Vietnam reflects many things, as it is often the case with sport competitions. One of those things has to do with Vietnamese perception of their standing regarding China in the last twenty or twenty-five years (and, to a lesser extent, their Southeast Asian neighbors). Well documented are popular Vietnamese sentiments against China’s aggressive policies and behavior in economic and military matters. Winning this championship–on Chinese soil, no less– should offer a boost of confidence about Vietnamese competitiveness in the near future regarding their neighbor to the north.
Sentiments against China could be detected after the semifinals, when Vietnamese learned that one of the referees for the championship match is from China. Some were concerned that he may be biased against the Vietnamese players during the game. The concern has added to the thrilling tension often found in the “lose-and-you’re out” stages of sport competitions.

This sentiment is reflected in a response by a Vietnamese man to the dissident blogger Đoan Trang, who has partaken in the celebrations. But she also thought that the euphoria after the semifinal game was easily distraction from political concerns. Indeed, it must be noted that at least a number of Vietnamese agreed with her.  Nonetheless, I think the majority opinion shares the sentiments expressed in the following response:

Thể thao đúng là chỉ mang tính thể thao. Nhưng chiến thắng trong thể thao nhất là bóng đá, môn thể thao vua lại rất có ý nghĩa về lòng tự hào dân tộc. Chiến thắng của tuyển U23 Việt Nam trước Quar ta trong trận bán kết U23 châu Á trên đất Trung Quốc lại càng ý nghĩa lớn hơn nhiều. Người Trung Quốc, nhất là các nhà lãnh đạo của họ thường luôn có thái độ coi thường Việt Nam ta nên hôm qua chắc chắn rằng họ cảm thấy xấu hổ và nhục nhã bởi họ là nước đăng cai tổ chức, đông dân và rất mạnh về kinh tế, vậy mà đội tuyển U23 của họ bị loại ngay từ vòng bảng. Vậy thì chiến thắng của U23 Việt Nam sẽ không chỉ còn đơn thuần về mặt thể thao nữa mà đó là ý chí của dân tộc Việt Nam, điều đó rất đỗi tự hào về thế hệ trẻ của chúng ta mà chính là các cầu thủ U23 đã mang về niềm vinh quang cho đất nước. 

[It’s true that ] sports are only sports. But sport victories, especially in soccer, the king of sports, mean a lot to national pride. The U23 Vietnam team’s victory over Qatar on Chinese land carries even bigger meaning.  The Chinese, especially their leaders, often condescend to us Vietnamese, and now they must have felt very ashamed. Although they are well organized, populous, and strong in the economy, their U23 team was eliminated after the first stage. The Vietnamese U23’s victory isn’t simply about sports, but it [shows] the will of the Vietnamese people. This point means pride for our young generation because the players who have brought glory to our country are members of that generation.

The point on “our young generation” is well aligned to the elevation of the young in the history of nationalism in modern Vietnam. Then the point on the players is underscored by the fact  that the average age of this team is 20.7: younger in comparison to, say, the average age of 21.4 for the usually dominant South Korean national team. (The average age of the Uzbekistan team, Vietnam’s opponent in the final match, is 20.9). I don’t think Vietnamese are obsessed with statistics. But like many kinds of statistics, this one could be easily shaped into another point of national pride.

I also think that the national euphoria has to do with the element of surprise, which happens in sports from time to time. Before the tournament, most experts didn’t seem to think that the Vietnamese team will go deep into this tournament. Since the U-23 tournament is still fairly new, commentators had pointed, for example, at Vietnamese participation in the much older AFC Asian Cup for a better perspective. The AFC Cup has been going on since 1956, but Vietnam has qualified only once since 1964 – in 2007 – and only because it happened to be a co-host that year. (The Republic of Vietnam participated in the first two tournaments: 1956 and 1960. There were only four teams each time, and it finished last both times.)  Those doubts were confirmed after Vietnam played its first match against South Korea during the first stage of the tournament, and lost 2-1.

But the tides began to change when Vietnam defeated Australia 1-0 three days later.  Vietnamese media called the victory “historic” and the scorer “heroic.”  Not only that they haven’t lost since. But they won the quarterfinal and semifinal matches in penalty shootouts, whose rules typically lead to twice the suspense and, for the victors, twice the thrill.  

Anyway, onward to the final game. I can’t predict the scale of reaction if the team loses. But I think I have a pretty good idea what will happen if it wins. It will mean that Tết comes to Vietnam three weeks early. And not one Tết but four or five of them rolled together.

In Saigon, fans have settled in to watch the championship game. ~ pc

UPDATE 1/27: The game was a thriller–and also a semi-controversy because it was played during a snowfall. The score was 2-1, and the winning goal occurred in the last minute of overtime. But the Vietnamese team was on the losing end this time when a substitute for the Uzbekistan team converted after a corner kick.

Still, Vietnamese have continued to celebrate their national team. From Saigon, another historian wrote the following on VSG just hours after the game was over.

Despite a heartbreaking loss in the last minute to Uzbekistan, Vietnamese young people here are holding noisy street celebrations, waving flags, beating drums, honking horns, and clogging Dong Khoi and other streets. We’ve been watching the chaos in front of the Opera House and down the street from our balcony at the Hotel Continental (Graham Greene’s old room!). Earlier had the surreal experience of standing on Nguyen Hue where at least 9 giant video screens had been set up for the crowds, and watching the Vietnamese team play in a driving snowstorm while we sweltered in 90 degree heat. The video went out right before Vietnam scored on a penalty kick, but the crowd took it remarkably well. The overall scene has been one of exuberance and youth out in decked in every manner of red and gold starred shirts, banners, flags, headbands, stickers, etc. Amazing to witness, and even the loss seems only to have temporarily delayed the subsequent street parades, which have been very loud and doing everything to make traffic congestion even worse than normal. Sometimes crowds are deliberately halting cars to wave flags in front of them, but then eventually letting them pass at a snail’s pace. Great to witness so many Vietnamese spontaneously celebrating in a manner of their own choosing.

Last but not least, I think that this match has produced the image below–some Vietnamese have already called it “photo of the year”–that illustrates teamwork, unity, perseverance, masculinity, etc. They are qualities perfectly in tune with the promotion of nationalism, including ethnic nationalism in Vietnam today.