There’s an obsession with English Premier League football in Vietnam. Thomas Barrett spends the night with a local arm of the Arsenal Supporters Club to find out what it’s all about. Photos by Pham Thu Nga.
Around 350 Arsenal fans are packed into Kasa Cafe in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City to watch their team play London rivals Chelsea. Today, the same question that will be asked in the North London pubs of Highbury and Finsbury Park is on everybody lips. Should long-serving Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, stay or go?
“It’s a big question,” says Linh, who is the vice-president of the official Arsenal supporters club in Vietnam. “Sometimes I feel he should go, but he stays, so we support him,” he adds. When Wenger appears on the huge screen, the large crowd stand up and applaud him. It seems in this corner of Southeast Asia, the Arsenal faithful are backing their boss.
The worldwide monster that is the English Premier League is hot property in Vietnam. The self-branded “best league in the world” has fans across the country hooked due to its mix of full-blooded, fast-paced action and recognisable global megastars. Manchester United and Liverpool shirts are ubiquitous sights on motorcycles in the big cities, and during a big match, the cafés that are dotted all the way down the Thi Nghe Canal will be full of fans huddled around a TV. Some observers at home have bemoaned a loss of connection to their local club as the game has become a truly global machine — but try telling these fanatical supporters waiting to watch their team play Chelsea, that being located 12,500km away from the Emirates Stadium makes them any less of a fan.
The success of the EPL since its launch in 1992 can be tracked via the amount of money the league has raised in revenue in worldwide television rights. Increasing the reach in far-flung corners of the globe has been essential to its growth, and some of the numbers commanded are eye-watering. In 2016 the Premier League sold a three-year contract to Chinese broadcasters PPTV for US$700 million. In the US, broadcaster NBC paid an estimated US$1 billion in 2015 for the rights to six seasons of the league.
While TV rights in Vietnam don’t command the same type of figures as in China or the US, the amount that broadcasters here have forked out to provide coverage of the league has risen sharply over the past decade. The current deal is with K+, which is a joint venture between VTV and French broadcaster Canal+. It was a controversial move, and according to Vietnam football expert, Scott Sommerville, the effects of this deal have not necessarily served football fans in Vietnam.
“When I first came here in 2006, all EPL games were shown on Vietnam free-to-air TV, including the big games with teams like Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea. However, since the cable provider K+ got involved, they drove the price up from US$3.9 million in 2008 to 2010, to US$38 million for the 2013-2016 period — this massive increase drove the game from free-to-air to cable — which meant a lot of viewers suddenly had their access taken away,” says Scott.
He adds: “People did find ways around this, most coffee shops have K+, and some of the lesser games are still shown on free- to-air. However, I really do think that this change to paid subscription TV had a big effect on the casual viewer.”
In 2013, there was a petition served to the then-prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, to try and prevent K+’s monopoly of EPL football in the country. A monthly subscription to K+ costs VND125,000. Not a massive amount, perhaps, but still enough in a country where the average income falls well below levels of more developed countries. It raised questions of whether subscription-based viewing was sustainable in Vietnam.
“I think that there was a real fear that Vietnam could lose all of its EPL television, though this fear was slightly alleviated with recent subscriber numbers,” says Scott.
“The cost for rights in Vietnam have already increased tenfold, and K+ has reportedly raked up losses of $88.52m to date. The positive is that K+ subscriber numbers have jumped from 95,600 in 2009 to 800,000 at end of 2016. If K+ can keep growing in line with the rights package prices (and consumers can keep up with subscription price rises) — it should be able to keep up.”
It’s now commonplace for the big English clubs to travel to Asia during their pre- season, where they will promote their brand and play to crowds who normally only get to witness them play on TV. They’ll play in the likes of Tokyo, Singapore or Hong Kong, but Vietnam is nearly always absent from itineraries. On the back of the Arsenal Soccer School programme, which had been running in Vietnam for almost five years, Arsenal bucked the trend when they played a fixture against the Vietnam national team in Hanoi in 2013. It was the first time an English Premier League club had played in Vietnam, and in 2015 Manchester City played in the country. The market in Vietnam is relatively untapped, and Scott believes it won’t be long before more clubs begin to make inroads into Vietnam.
“Vietnam has also struggled with its relatively weak economy,” he says. “EPL clubs don’t see a huge middle-class market waiting to spend money on replica jerseys, for now. I expect that within four to five years a few clubs will start making a bigger impact in Vietnam. It’s probably a case of when, rather than if.”
When you’re not geographically connected to a club through birth — how do you choose which club to follow? Twenty-four- year-old Lien has been an Arsenal fan for six years, and she started following them because she liked the look of cherubic Czech midfielder, Tomas Rosicky. It’s a love affair that has continued, and she proudly shows off a tattoo on her shoulder which says ‘Come on you Gooners’.
Khanh’s grandmother used to watch Arsenal on TV so he sees it as keeping up the family tradition, and Linh’s first memory of watching TV was when David Beckham scored his famous goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon in 1996. He saw the red shirt and decided to follow Arsenal ever since. It wasn’t until 2006 that he found out that Beckham was actually wearing the red shirt of Manchester United, but by then, the dye had been cast and he’d long been calling himself a Gooner. “My favourite player is [Thierry] Henry,” he says. “His finishing was incredible.”
Michael is a former season ticket holder at Arsenal and has been following the club for most of his life, born three tube stops from Finsbury Park Station near to Arsenal’s home stadium. He’s one of just a couple of Western faces in the crowd tonight. He enjoys the experience of watching with the Vietnamese fans save for one thing. “I like to sing [when watching Arsenal] — and I won’t sing on my own!”
The game ends goalless at 0-0, but the Arsenal fans seem happy with the result against last season’s champions. As they leave, their seats are filled by Manchester United fans, who are here to watch their team play Everton.
by Thomas Barrett.