HANOI, Vietnam — There were so few people watching Vietnam take on Hong Kong in a recent Asian Cup qualifier that turnstile staff hardly bothered checking tickets on the damp, cold Hanoi evening.
Rewind seven months, when Arsenal visited and it was very different.
Families decked in the North London club’s red-and-white flocked past frenetically busy ticket touts. From his roof-top portrait, Vietnamese revolutionary and hero Ho Chi Minh gazed down on the 40,000 people who cheered as the Gunners shredded the national team.
Moral of the story: Many Southeast Asian soccer fans, including those in Vietnam, don’t give two hoots for the homegrown game. Across the region, leagues and teams struggle to get even a fraction of the support, attention and revenue that European clubs enjoy. Match-fixing, corrupt governing bodies and chaotic management are partly to blame.
“It’s a mess,” said Nguyen Van Nam, among the mere 5,000 people who attended Vietnam’s 3-1 victory over Hong Kong. Only because he couldn’t get tickets for Arsenal’s pre-season money-spinner in July did the 38-year-old come with his two soccer-mad children.
“Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Southeast Asia is home to 620 million people, around the same as Latin America, but hasn’t sent a team to the World Cup since 1938, when Indonesia played as “Dutch East Indies” because it was still a colony.
That many fans across the region only have eyes for European soccer is easy to understand when one considers the pathetic showing of supposedly major Asian nations in the latest cycle of the Asian Cup. The 58-year-old competition for nearly 50 countries from Australia to Yemen is meant to showcase the region’s best national sides and their best soccer. But Thailand and Indonesia lost all their six matches, scoring just nine goals between them, and Singapore and Vietnam scrapped a single victory each. Hence the meager turnout in Hanoi.