In early 1976, shortly after the dusts of war had started to settle on a now unified Vietnam, Lê Bửu, General Director of the Sports Administration Department, was tasked with heading south to Saigon to arrange a football match to take place between a team from the north and a team from the south. It would be an act of unification, of sports above politics, and to some, a show of northern might against the fragile, weak and unorganised Saigon team.
This was not just a regular game; this trip had great political and social significance as a messenger of peace and national harmony in the early years of liberation and reunification of the country.
By mid-1976, the team selected to represent the establishment was announced. The General Dept. of Railways F.C. (CLB Tổng Cục Đường Sắt, or TCĐS) would shoulder the expectations of the newly-formed Socialist Republic of Vietnam. TCĐS were the most recent winners of the Northern Union Championship, and alongside perennial powerhouse Army Team (Thể Công), they were seen as the perfect choice to represent the victorious north.
There was also some political motivation behind choosing TCĐS, as Lê Bửu happily admitted: “We invited the Railway Team for a number of reasons: the country was about to undertake the building of the north-south line, and it promoted a sense of unity for the country, and the players of the railway team were seen as working class, equals. It was a useful piece of propaganda.”
Although expected to face little opposition from the embattled southern outfit, the team’s management were instructed to take things seriously. The team had been sent on a tour of China earlier in the year, halfway through which they received a call from government officials to prepare “for an important task” – train harder, prepare like never before, and then travel to Saigon.
One of the younger members of that TCĐS team was Mai Đức Chung, who went on to manage a number of V.League clubs in the 2000s and 2010s, and in 2017 took temporary charge of the Vietnam national team. On hearing the news that the team were headed to Saigon, Mai Đức Chung recalled their excitement. “Before we left we were all eager to see Saigon, to discover the level of football there. We were excited, most of us had never been to Saigon, we had heard rumours of it being the Paris of the Orient.”
As the date of departure from China grew closer, anxiety within the players began to surface. “The fear of flying for the first time was overshadowed by the words of our leaders: ‘The situation in Saigon is still uncertain, it’s still dangerous, no one should travel alone’. Most of us players could not stop thinking about those words.”
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The future Prime Minister of Vietnam, Võ Văn Kiệt – then Chairman of the People’s Committee of HCMC – asked Lê Bửu about the chosen opposition to represent those south of the 17th parallel. “My suggestion is Saigon Port FC (CLB Cảng Sài Gòn). This is the team of the working class people of the south. Additionally, they are the largest and strongest team in the southern region of Vietnam.”
The stage was set. Saigon Port FC would play The General Dept. of Railways F.C. at the Reunification Stadium (SVD Thống Nhất) in the heart of Saigon in early November, as the rainy season started to give way to the hot and humid dry season.
In the early afternoon sun, military flight IL12 landed at Tan Son Nhat airport, and there to welcome the players and officials of General Railway FC were representatives from the two biggest clubs in Saigon – Saigon Port captain Phạm Huỳnh Tam Lang and captain of Customs FC (CLB Hải Quan), Phạm Văn Lắm. After 21 years of separation, these footballers – and men – of north and south had finally been reunited, ironically on the tarmac over which just one year previously, forces of the NVA had flown captured A-37s on bombing raids to destroy the runway where they now shook hands and embraced one another.
As dawn broke on 7 November, it was a typical Saigon autumn morning that started off brightly, before slowly but surely by midday, low-hanging light grey clouds provided some much-needed shade from the burning sun. All afternoon it threatened to rain one last time, a farewell to the six-month monsoon season. The rain never came.
In District 10 of Saigon, Thống Nhất Stadium was a typical brutalist, concrete stadium – one of 10 or so almost-identical stadia throughout Vietnam, and indeed communist countries around the world. A large, cavernous concrete bowl, an abandoned brown running track, open to the elements, with just one small section of covered plastic seats for the ruling elite of the time, be they royalty, military or political.
Since the arrival of the team from the north, word of mouth had quickly begun spreading its wings, and with some gentle government prodding of locals and low-ranking officials, the crowds slowly started to gather outside Thống Nhất Stadium – it was hoped that some 10,000 people would attend. Just as Mai Đức Chung was curious about southern football, football fans in Saigon were equally fascinated to see the team from the north.
Almost nothing was known about the quality of players from the north; many under the age of 30 had never seen a football team from the north in their lifetime, and there was a palpable sense of intrigue mixed with fear. Would the south be humiliated? Would the men of the north be weak and fragile, as US radio had told them just one year earlier?
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By 2pm it was clear that the capacity of 25,000 was simply not enough – some 40,000 people spilled into stands and onto the running track surrounding the playing field. Hoàng Gia, who played that day for TCĐS, said of the pre-match surge: “I have never played in such an atmosphere, it felt as if the audience poured down onto the pitch.” Despite the game kicking off at 7.30pm, the gates were closed by 3pm. Fans started climbing walls to find a vantage point, military police had to batten down the turnstile gates, while the running track surrounding the playing field had all but disappeared under the sea of an eager audience.
Hoàng Gia adds: “As the whistle blew, we were aware that fans were still trying to get into the gates. The country was still recently liberated, so all four roads leading to the stadium were filled with tanks; there were many police both inside and outside the stadium.” As the teams walked out onto the pitch, gunfire exploded into the early evening sky, giving the players a gentle reminder of the importance of the game, and what it meant to all those involved.
On the pitch, the game was an interesting match-up between two differing football philosophies, which was somewhat predictable given the political situation during the previous 30 years. Saigon Port preferred a fluid 4-2-4 formation using a quick passing game based on the ideals of Flávio Costa, the 1950s Brazilian coach. Their football was expressive, creative and allowed for individual technique over the collective.
Their team featured some of the idols of South Vietnamese football: goalkeeper Lưu Kim Hoàng, central defender Tam Lang, and marauding full-back Nguyễn Tấn Trung, affectionately nicknamed ‘Wolf’ by his teammates. Providing the graft were midfield duo Dương Văn Thà and Nguyễn Văn Mười, and up front there was the attacking triumvirate of Lê Văn Tư, Nguyễn Văn Ngôn and Trần Văn Xinh.
TCĐS coach Tran Duy Long had studied at the Kyiv Institute of Sport in the 1940s, and his footballing ideals mirrored those of Eastern Europe: the long ball game, switching play to the wings, and taking opportunities to shoot whenever the team was within 25 yards of the opposition goal. The approach was criticised in some corners as negative football, but above all else it was effective, particularly in warmer, humid climates where the lack of off-the-ball movement and running with the ball helped the players to conserve valuable energy.
TCĐS played a rigid 4-3-3, which had proved very successful for them during the previous Chinese tour. They relied on their experienced players. Nguyễn Trường Sinh played in goal, with the young central defender Lê Khắc Chính marshalling the defence and Nguyễn Minh Phương providing defensive cover from full-back. The three in midfield would be Lê Thụy Hải, Hoàng Gia and Phạm Kỳ Thụy, with Mai Đức Chung, Nguyễn Văn Lộc and Nguyễn Minh Điểm playing upfront.
All of the pre-match gossip and rumours of the fans before the game, including stories of malnourished northern players and of weak and pale southern footballers, were quickly dismissed. Both teams looked remarkably similar in health and stature, although TCĐS central defender Lê Khắc Chính did add: “At the time our team [Railway FC] were tall, almost all on the 1.70m, very evenly. In contrast, the Saigon player looked smaller.” It was hard to tell the difference, if any, between men from the north and men from the south.
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In the second half, TCĐS had taken a 2-0 lead, and the atmosphere inside Thống Nhất was starting to boil. Striker Nguyễn Minh Điểm recalled his internal thoughts at that point. “‘Stay inside the stadium, there are still noises of distant explosions outside of the ground.’ I was still very worried.” Players on the field started to look more nervous, more apprehensive, and fearful.
The Vietnam War was still present in everyone’s consciousness, a painful memory that still lingered in the air, and in the now subdued Saigon streets. It was just 18 months earlier that General Văn Tiến Dũng had commanded the North Vietnamese forces into Saigon. The PAVN bombarded Ton Son Nhat Airport, and in the days that followed slowly took control of vital parts of the city, culminating on 30 April when Colonel Bùi Tín drove Tank No.390 through the gates of the Presidential Palace and accepted the unconditional surrender of Dương Văn Minh. Thus ended the Vietnam War, a conflict that separated families and friends and that killed an estimated two million Vietnamese.
The game slowly started to simmer down, and the final 20 minutes were played in good spirits – perhaps with both teams aware of the situation – as the game ended 2-0, and without incident. TCĐS team official Nguyễn Văn Lộc fondly remembers the final whistle. “In my opinion, the biggest success of the match was after referee Hồ Thiệu Quang blew the final whistle, the spectators around the stadium stood up and we received applause in support of both teams.”
Reporter Trương Nguyên Việt added: “Players from both teams left the Saigon people with beautiful memories. The solidarity of the two regions, holding hands to enter the field of play; it was a day of great joy and victory. At the end of the game, there were no losers, all of them were winners. It was a victory for the reunification of the north and south.”
The game is fondly remembered within the football community in Vietnam, as well as in society as a whole. Many of the players who took part in the famous Reunification Game went on the become coaches and managers themselves, helping to build the early foundations of Vietnamese football in the 1980s and 90s.
Lê Khắc Chính said: “Our generation definitely considers this match as [an] unforgettable part of our history. At the time two footballing regions were completely unaware of each other. Although 40 years have now passed, when we think back, the memories are not faded, it was a match that helped to bridge [the regions in] our country.”
In April 2015, surviving members of both teams reunited for a friendly game at Thống Nhất Stadium, which hadn’t changed at all since that game 40 years earlier. Many stories were told and memories shared. Politics of the past, however, were all but forgotten.
By Scott Sommerville @Saigon_Redux