Writing on Vietnam


The Colonial History of Vietnamese Soccer (1)?

This semester I am working as a Graduate Student Instructor for James Vernon's "History of Soccer" course, and it got me thinking, what is the history of Vietnamese soccer?

Like most things in Vietnamese history, it’s complicated!

My first searches turned up a few good leads, and to avoid too lengthy of a post, each of these documents should probably be treated separately.

The first document is, as often happens with my research into Vietnamese history, a great blogpost from a Vietnamese author on the topic! Võ Quang Hào’s “History of Vietnamese Soccer (I): 1896-1975“.

I’ve posted a rough translation of the first part into English below so that anyone who is interested in the topic can read it for themselves. But first, a few interesting aspects of the story that I think are worth highlighting.

The Backstory of the Blogpost

Like so many of the most interesting things I find on Vietnamese history, whether it’s literature and criticism, memoirs, personal reflections, or reference lists, the history appears to have been first penned by an amateur historian either within the country or in the diaspora, and greatly aided by the availability of materials made possible by the internet. Hao (the author’s first name) makes reference to his position outside the country, and thanks journalists within the country for making certain information available online. While I don’t think his account has to be read with the same type of skepticism as what Liam Kelley has, I think quite sympathetically, treated as “Fringe History,” I nonetheless think it is similarly an ‘amateur type’ of source that so-called “professional” historians would be foolish to ignore (though all the caveats about critical engagement still apply).

Another aspect of Hao’s post that caught my eye was the way it was tied into his personal experience. Hao mentions that he evaluated his references in terms of the way they aligned with his “old man’s (father’s) stories” [lời tường thuật của bố già] who was something of a “soccer addict”, and the way they matched his own memories. This relation to personal recollections is layered as well. He mentions that the sources he uses also arose from personal reflections, and that they “likely wish to avoid forbidden terms”[tránh một số chữ cấm kỵ] or “over modernize” things.

While it’s probably safe to assume that “over-modernize” refers to what historians term “historical thinking,” what does it mean that other authors may have erred in details because they “likely wish to avoid forbidden terms”? I’m not really sure, but I would wager that it refers to political pressure within the country to avoid paying any compliments to people that fell foul of the VCP. This would include “actual” colonial collaborators of various stripes, but it would also include rival nationalists. Does anybody have an alternate interpretation? If so please comment!

If I am correct in my interpretation, then it is striking that already in the preface to one of the top google hits in Vietnamese on the history of soccer, post colonial political exigencies already haunt the narrative! It’s easy for Vietnam historians to get so accustomed to this problem that we forget the implications, and underestimate how much it has distorted the historiography at other levels.

Content of the History

I have translated the section on “Internal Development” below, not because the section on “international achievements” that follows is any less interesting or important, but simply because I was most interested in the first part of the story, and because I got tired of translating!

Before I turn it over to the translation, there are a couple aspects of the content that I would like to highlight.

First, unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese history of soccer is closely tied to French colonialism. More surprising, however, is the way this connection doesn’t figure as emulation (or hybridity) of a French national pastime. Soccer was no symbol of French virtue, like cycling, Marianne, or Republican values more generally (no matter how hollow these values often proved to be in the actual practice of colonial government). It seems instead that soccer was related to the English! The turning point in Hao’s telling is the 1905 arrival of British mariners on the King Alfred.

HMS King Alfred. Torpedoed by a German sub in 1918. Scrapped in 1920

According to historian of soccer David Goldblatt, French and Germans were latecomers to the game of soccer, behind Latin America. French popular sports in general was in part a response to the crushing defeat in the Franco Prussian War, which was interpreted by many nationalists as an indictment of the French people’s weak constitution. Even then, even in the colony, cycling was far and away dominant in every measure, with rugby beating out soccer for winter games. Goldblatt explains that, in the metropole, on the eve of the First World War,

“While middle-class nationalists had looked to Germany, and the peasantry and urban lower classes had taken to cycling, it was the young Anglophile, metropolitan elite that embraced English sports.”

The relationship between sports and notions of national and racial backwardness (in the Vietnamese case) will be touched on in the next blog post. Here though I want to touch on the issue of the “Anglophile metropolitan elite”. Regarding this group, Goldblatt elsewhere quotes at length a Frenchman, Paul Adams, who in 1906 reflected “on the dense network of formal and informal connections among this emergent transnational class” with the words:

“Over the last fifty years, a general type of elite has emerged. They share a number of common ideas about philosophy, science, arts and morality. They reign and prosper in spa towns, winter resorts and where international conferences take place. This elite is composed of doctors, bankers, professors, rentiers, authors, diplomats, dandies, artists, princes and dilettantes of various kinds . . . they consider themselves brothers of the same intellectual family and have faith in universality and rationalism . . . through sport they may unite and soon dominate the world.”

It’s not the “Frenchness” of these people which is at stake, but rather their belonging to the multi-lingual and multinational global elite. And, to speculate a bit, they might include some of the “anarchist” elite that Benedict Anderson would paradoxically describe as the crucial network of the proto-nationalist movement!

This doesn’t mean that their “frenchness” doesn’t matter, nor does it necessarily imply that this cohort were less burdened by any of the negative features we often associate with the colonial elite: racism, sexism, abuse of the native population, extreme economic exploitation, etc. Rather, I’m emphasizing that the Frenchness isn’t associated with soccer in any essential way, for example the way soccer was associated with English in Ireland, leading to its early rejection and the substitution of hurling. It’s probably fair to speculate that among the French, and the Vietnamese elite of the era, soccer was likewise associated with English global hegemony.

This leads to the second aspect of that I would like to briefly highlight before pasting Hao’s history. This soccer playing elite, from the beginning, appears to have included some relatively small portion of South Vietnamese (with French citizenship). The early history of the development of this elite has been well documented. But, and this is where my interests come in, much less has been written about the much larger cohort of Vietnamese civil servants and business people, both with and without French citizenship, that developed after 1880. Many of these people played crucial roles in the development of civil society and mutual aid organizations, occasionally with explicitly revolutionary intent, yet they are completely overshadowed in this period by the last vestiges of royalists revanchists like Phan Boi Chau. The way sports intersects with the moral, racial, and economic program of this new colonized elite will be the topic of the next post.

There is much else that can be mentioned about the overview Hao provides. Particularly interesting is his claim that Can Tho had the first women’s team in Asia, which tied the mens team in a much publicized match. His summary is by no means the last word on the topic, but it gives us some great leads! Any comments, and especially any leads on further research into the role of this class of early Vietnamese businessmen, please comment!

The History of Vietnamese Soccer (I): 1896- 1975

Võ Quang Hào 

For a long time now, each time I write or speak about international soccer, I’ve always hoped to have a chance to introduce Vietnamese soccer. But due to being born late, and leaving the country early, and since I am not a research specialist, I’ve had my hands tied by the lack of materials. Luckily of late a few articles on the topic have been written within the country and posted on the internet. After evaluating them, they match both my old man’s stories (who was in his lifetime a soccer addict), and my own memories. So I’ve taken the liberty of compiling them into the essay below. Although there are probably many errors of detail (particularly about names, since the materials for the most part appear to arise from personal recollections, and likely wish to avoid using forbidden terms, or for the opposite reason, they have over-modernized a few words), I nevertheless hope that I have created a holistic perspective, relatively precise, about Vietnamese soccer, for those readers among the diaspora who love the game. In any event, I wish to sincerely thank the authors who did list their names among the materials. 

  1. Internal Development

According to extent materials, soccer followed in the footsteps of those Frenchmen who came to Vietnam around 1896. It arrived first in the South, of course, and later spread to the North and Central regions. 

  1. The South

The first soccer players in Saigon were French (the colonial officials, merchants, and soldiers), and their soccer pitch each weekend was the city park, the French name in those days was the Jardin de la Ville (Today the Emperor Garden, in Tao Dan field). Gradually, Europeans of different means also came to play. Afterward, a few Vietnamese, those officials or merchants with French citizenship, also began to participate. Rugby, which at first also appeared, was completely replaced with soccer. Then they gathered into clubs, taking the name Cercle Sportif Saigonnais. In 1905, an English team from the battleship King Alfred visited Saigon, and played a friendly match with a Franco Vietnamese team; this was the first international game in Vietnam. In 1906, Mr. E. Breton, a French board member of L’Union des Sociétés Francaises des Sports Athlétiques popularized the rules of the game, and in his role as Director of the organization, reorganized the Cercle Sportif Saigonnais in accordance with the organizational principals of the other teams in France. Many other clubs were founded by copying these principles, such as Infanterie, Saigon Sport, Athletic Club, Stade Militaire, Tabert Club.. etc. Soccer Cups were also first organized at this time. 

Due to a more methodical organization and practice routine, the Cercle Sportif Saigonnais won the up consecuitvely many times : 1907, 1909, 1911, 1912, 1916… Our people [the Vietnamese] were very sensitive to soccer, we enjoyed it quite early and were confident in our own talent so we copied them; students, mariners, civil servants, all challenged eachother to games, despite extremely adverse conditions, particularly in regards to the state of the pitches. But within a few short years many Vietnamese understood the rules and techniques and created their own clubs, taking the name Gia Định Sport.[1] This was the first Vietnamese team, founded in 1907, and led by Mr. Ba Vẻ and Phú Khai, it was later merged with Etoile Bleue which belonged to the District Chief Nguyễn Đình Trị and was renamed the Gia Dinh Stars. From 1920 there arose many talented players. The Gia Dinh Stars beat all the other teams, most of whom were Europeans, including the Cercle Sportif belonging to mr Breton to win the championship in 1917. For the whole decade of 1925-1935 the Stars were filled with a whole generations of famous players still mentioned today, such as: Sách, Thơm, Nhiều, Quý, Tịnh, Xường, Trung, Thi, Vi, Mùi, Tiếc, Rớt, Tài, Út, Danh, Giỏi, E. Quang… In the next decade from 1945 to 1954, the Gia Dinh team continued to dominate Southern soccer with another generation of excellent players, including: Maurice Tài, Coón,[2] Lý Ðức, Quới, Hiếu, Thọ 2, Tư, Mai, Mỹ, Thách, Thọ Ve, Bùi Nghẻn, Khê…  

Also in the 1920s, seeing that we were capable of independence, the fans and managers founded a General Federation of Annamite Soccer which only admitted Vietnamese. They elected Nguyen Dinh Tri as the Chief Executive, and purchased land for a field. At that time there was also a football federation controlled by the French, so the relations between the two federations were less than pleasant. Nevertheless, they did collaborate to organize matches, such as the Southern Championship for example. Among the Southern soccer clubs of the period, besides the Gia Dinh Stars, in the Saigon area, there was Victoria Sportive, Commerce Sport, Jean Comte, Sport Cholonaise, Khanh Hoi Sport, Tan Dinh Sport, Go Vap, Hiep Hoa, Cho Quan, Phu Nhuan, Dong Nai, etc. In other provinces there were teams in Thu Dau Mot, Can Tho, Soc Trang, Sa Dec, Go Cong, Chau Doc, My Tho… and regarding pitches, one must mention Vuon Ong Thuong (Tao Dan), Citadelle (Hoa Lu), Renault (which became Cong Hoa, and today is Thong Nhat), and a few others that only exist now in our memories, such as Fourières (in Ba Chieu near Le Van Duyet’s masoleum), Mayer (on the corner of Vo Thi Sau and Tran Quoc Thao today) and Marine (near the City Eye Center today)… On these fields played countless generations of Vietnamese who will remain forever in the collective memory of the fans. 

In that fiery Championship match between the Cercle Sportif and the Gia Dinh Stars in 1925, the French referee ejected Paul Thi from the game after a brawl broke out, causing him to be expelled forever from the league. This only added to tensions between the French and Vietnamese. The Southern Cup was interrupted, and only started again in 1932, with six Vietnamese teams and three French teams. Nevertheless from 1925 to 1935 there were up to 29 different types of championships organized, Gia Dinh alone was awarded eight times, confirming it’s status as football king of South Vietnam for an age. The rest of the awards were evenly distributed among Victoria Sportive, Khanh Hoi, Cercle Sportif Saigonnais, Jean Comte, Auto-Hall (South), Commerce Sport, Thu Dau Mot… Besides the championships, other cups spread chaotically over Saigon and other provinces. The Annamite Soccer Federation also organized matches with invited foreign teams, and sent their teams to play in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia… The wave spread this the king of sports all over the country. Whereever it went soccer was loved by our people, who trained and participated ethusiastically. 

At that time soccer was not yet a career, and the players saw it as a type of hobby whose main objective was chiefly for healthy exercise. Most players lived frugally, they walked or took buggies to the pitch for practice; occasionally the club owners would give them some pocket change for noodles or coffee if they won. Another interesting dimension is that although Saigon was the origin of the country’s soccer, it never had a women’s team. In about 1932, in Can Tho (Mekong Delta) the first women’s team, the Cái Vồn, was founded by Phan Khac Suu, who later became the President of the Republic of Vietnam (South) from 1964-1965. The Cai Von was the first Vietnamese women’s team, and possibly the first women’s team in all of Asia! A few years later, the Bà Trưng were established in Rach Gia-Long Xuyen. During the Lunar New Year these two teams would huff it up to Saigon to… “perform”. One achievement of theirs was in 1933, when the Cai Von team played the Paul Bert men’s team at the Mayer pitch and tied 2-2! 

  • The North and Central Regions

In the North the three main sports mentioned by newspapers and played by the french as late as 1900 were horse racing, fencing, and bowling. So it’s therefore likely that soccer didn’t enter the north until 1906-1907, after the famous visit from the English King Alfred team in Saigon. On 22-12-1909 the French newspaper L’Avenir du Tonkin published a report on a match between the Dap Cau Legionnaires and the Hai Phong Olympique (the Olympique at that time had both French and Vietnamese players). The article reported that “the match unfolded excitingly and was much loved by the audience. The Dap Cau played a bit better, and Hai Phong also played very tight, but they didn’t know how to do headers. They both played sportingly, and didn’t noisily yell. The referee was fair. Ultimately Hai Phong won 2-1.” But in the rematch L’Avenir reported in 20-1-1910 that the Dap Cau Legionnaires beat Hai Phong 8-1 on their own turf in Hai Phong. 

In Hanoi, the Stade Hanoien was founded in February 1912, which included both Vietnamese and Frenchmen like Menin, Megy, Bernard, Bonardi… The French military had the Regiment d’Infanterie Coloniale (RIC), the Etoile Blueu, the Dap Cau Legionnaires, the Viet Tri Legionnaires, and a few other teams. The RIC was superb, and had many famous players like Luier, Auroix, Marinelli, Beye. On 1-11-1913, a match between the RIC and Hanoi Football Club attracted 3,000 fans, the RIC won 5-3. 

In the 1910s and 20s Vietnamese teams rapidly developed. At first they were led by barefooted students. They used a white rubber ball purchased from Chinese, Vietnamese or Japanese shops. Often each neighborhood would field its own teams. Hanoi had a population of about 100,000 at the time, and matches were held in each empty lot, even in the middle of empty intersections, especially near the Don Thuy hospital (Huu Nghi Hospital today) or in front of the Hang Ken school (Quang Trung today), or on Gambetta Street (now Tran Hung Dao)… Later, in order to get a pitch with proper dimensions and to award the various shoe-d and barefooted teams, the Bolts [Éclair] FC and Hanoi FC collaborated to establish the Oiler Field (near the Shell Oil Co. Warehouse, by the Cai River Bridge, now called Long Bien Bridge). Only the Mangin pitch (later called the Hang co, now called the Cot Co) had the right dimensions, and it belonged to the French military and could only be used in championship matches between formal teams with shoes. It was on the Mangin pitch that a Tonkin Championship was organized for the first time in 1918-1919, with the jubilant atmosphere of a festival: a military band marched around the stadium blowing their horns, then the match began. At first it was free to attend, later the organizers blocked off four entrances and charged a dime a ticket. 

Regarding the teams, the end of the 30s and beginning of the 40s was the pinnacle of the first period of Vietnamese soccer, in both achievement and of the size of the movement. At this time almost every province fielded a team, from the North to the Central Region, not to mention the South, where it all originated. In the north, besides the Bolts (Éclair), which were led by Tran Van Quy who was both the patron and a famous half back, there was the Hanoi FC, and the Racing Club, La Lance, Usaga, Truong Buoi, Université Club, Bank, Auto Hall… the Port Golden Elephants, Olympique Hai Phong, Le Flèche, Radium Middle School, La Jeunesse Tonkinoise in Hai Phong, Hong Bang in Nam Dinh, Phu Ly Sports, and even in Lang Son at the edge of the mountainous border was Le Semeur. The Central Region had ASNA Vinh, Sept Hue, Touranne (Danang) Faifo (Hoi An), Cheminot Nha Trang. 

  • Indochinese Fellowship

In 1931, accepting the invitation of the Saigon Football Federation, The Bolts and Tonkin Youth took cars down to the south for a friendly match; this “southern march” was extremely arduous and exhausting. The Gia Dinh Stars beat the Bolts 5-0, Victoria Sport beat the Tonkin Youth 1-0. Nevertheless it was a major bridge between northern and southern sport. 

In 1936, to celebrate the completion of the Indochina Railway, the Undersecratary of the Ministry of the Colonies Léo Lagrange had the opportunity to organize, for the first time, a five team tournament which inclueded a team from Tonkin (North), Annam (Center), Cochinchina (South), Cambodia, and Laos. It was at first called the Leo Lagrange Cup, then the Petain Cup, then the Indochinese Cup. From then, the cup became an annual event whenever conditions allowed for it. Also at this time the Second World War broke out. The Viet Minh was born and publicly mobilized the people for independence. The Indochinese rulers responded with a movement called Health for Service, and permitted Colonel Ducouroy to organize an Indochinese Soccer Championship, in an attempt to draw the urban youth into soccer and away from politics. Alongside many other sports, such as table tennis, bicycle racing, and boxing… Soccer benefited by spreading broadly and achieving satisfactory results. But from 1945, due to political exigencies and then war, organizational capacities and soccer skils were retarded and declined. 

The results of the first four years of the Indochinese Cup were: 

1) Hanoi 1941, Cochinchina beat Annam 4-2; 

2) Hue 1942, Cochinchina beat Tonkin 3-2; 

3) Phnom Penh 1943, Cochinchina beat Annam 1-0; 

4) Phnom Penh 1944, Tonkin beat Cochinchina 3-0. 


[1] Gia Định is the older Vietnamese name for the area around what is today downtown Ho Chi Minh City. 

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