Think of football and Vietnam doesn’t immediately spring to mind. East Asia in general is hardly a hotbed of footballing excellence (although people there watch as many English premier league games as anywhere else) and, given the size of their populations, big nations such as China have done poorly at international level (much to the frustration of their citizens).
But in Hue, the former imperial capital located at the country’s narrowest point roughly halfway between the north and south of the country, Norwegian NGO Football For All in Vietnam (FFAV) is using the sport to push for social change. Perhaps because not many people in Vietnam play football, setting up leagues also affords an opportunity to transmit values.
I turned up in Hue hoping to take part in a weekly kickabout involving FFAV staff and Vietnamese kids, but it was cancelled. So instead I visited the FFAV office and had a chat with Ian Clayton, a British employee of the Norwegian FA who is married to a former footballer, speaks fluent Norwegian, spent two years managing a Norwegian women’s club team and is on secondment to Vietnam for a year to work as programme officer for FFAV.
“We’re not here to change Vietnam,” he said. “We’re here to help the social development work of the Vietnamese government. We are helping to change the bigotry of the man in the street.”
Groups suffering discrimination in Vietnam include the disabled, many of whom may have lost limbs to landmines left over from the war (more than 42,000 people have been killed by UXO since the war ended in 1975), those affected by HIV and ethnic minorities in the central highlands, referred to as ‘montagnards‘, who attracted government ire for siding with the Americans during the Vietnam War and say they are steadily being kicked off land so it can be used for agriculture.
FFAV now runs 1,600 teams in 109 clubs, with 90% of clubs having their own pitch. It has 10 full-time staff, nine part-time staff and 60 volunteers. One of its aims is to tackle entrenched attitudes about gender roles – “boys play football, girls don’t” – and half the players at all the clubs must be girls otherwise they risk losing funding.
Matches are non-competitive, meaning it doesn’t matter if you win or lose.
“Vietnam and Asia in general is all about winning,” said Clayton. “But I win when all my kids are smiling at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if they can play like Beckham or are useless on the pitch.”
Playing football has had a big impact, according to Clayton. There is a 40% lower dropout rate at montagnard schools that have teams because the kids want to play, he says. Attitudes towards the disabled have also changed.
“When disabled kids started playing football people used to come and poke fun at them,” he said. “Now no one takes any notice. That’s the best reaction we could hope for.”
And the kids themselves have grown enormously in confidence.
“All this is to show that girls, the disabled and montagnards have something to offer. Three years ago, a boy called Phuong with cerebral palsy turned up. He didn’t talk and was very unfit. Now he’s a pain in the ass, he wants to be part of everything.”
Phuong represented Vietnam in the 60 m race at the Special Olympics in Athens last year, Clayton said.
As part of its activities, FFAV also sends a team of girls to the Norway Cup, an international youth tournament. Girls from every province go through a tough selection process to find the most enthusiastic and community-minded rather than the best footballers.
“It has nothing to do with ability, it’s about what they do in the community. We don’t send them there to win but to represent what we are doing here,” said Clayton.
In Norway, the girls stay with a host family and often communicate with them using a PC and Google Translate. On the pitch, every girl has to play the same number of minutes, even if it could mean the team loses.
“We have to be clear about this because it’s not easy to get the coaches to understand,” said Clayton.
FFAV is also working to instil a culture of volunteerism. Although the project has secured funding for another four years, Clayton hopes that the clubs and the league can become self-sufficient. In Norway, kids may not have to pay to be a member of a team but parents typically put in about 30 hours of unpaid work each month to help run the clubs.
“There’s no real tradition of volunteerism here,” he said. “People are poor so they want to be paid for anything they do. But at some point we will not be here. We are trying to make these clubs self-sufficient. With 110 clubs we are at our limit. There are 400 schools in Hue and they all want to have a club. We can’t handle them all.”
One of FFAV’s Vietnamese staff is in Norway for a year learning how the clubs finance themselves, while the grassroots football course being taught to coaches in Hue is taken directly from Norway and aims to make football coaches independent.
FFAV’s office in Hue, a big comfortable space, is festooned with Norwegian flags that were dished out at a recent event and also includes a traditional poster with ‘Football for all’ rendered in Vietnamese calligraphy and a big photo of a girl wheeling away in celebration after scoring a goal.
It’s probably not a traditional Asian office – staff are banned from using the elevator to encourage physical fitness and practical jokes are common. Clayton himself is nearing the end of his year in Hue but said the friendships he had made meant he would definitely be back to visit.
“In Hue everyone has heard of us and they think we are here to do something positive,” he said. “Being here has made a huge impression on me. It will freak you out, you won’t want to go home and walk away from the project.”