Like in most places in the world, people in Vietnam love football. Also known as soccer to my fellow Americans out there (and Australians, I suppose).
I admit it. I’m a relatively recent convert to football. I always liked the idea of football though. I watched the Big Green as a kid. I loved She’s the Man. I even wrote a thesis paper in college about football hooliganism in Europe and its relationship to social capital.
I always wanted to learn how to play football. Once, in elementary school I tried learning how to play but I failed miserably and never tried playing again until I was an adult.
During the 2010 World Cup, I was in Beijing and that was where I realized how big a deal football was. The 2010 World Cup was probably the first time I had ever watched a football match from beginning to end. Just about everyone was talking about or watching the World Cup. Makeshift viewing areas were set up all over the city with portable tv’s and folding chairs to allow people to watch the games. When I visited Vietnam for the first time in the summer of 2010, I was amazed to see how many people were playing football everywhere. It didn’t matter how hot it was outside, you’d find a game going on somewhere. Whether it was on concrete, grass, or dirt, people were playing. When I was in India, staying at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, some monks would sneak out of the monastery in the early morning hours before their morning prayers just so they could play football. I was amazed by their dedication at the cost of precious hours of sleep. All just for football. Fast forward to the 2014 World Cup, and I, along with more Americans than ever before, were watching the World Cup. In fact, I watched almost every single match.
Anyways, one of my goals when I moved to Vietnam was to learn how to play football. After all, Vietnam loves football, right? Like in 2010 when I visited Vietnam for the first time, football was everywhere in 2015. There are football fields, makeshift and permanent, everywhere in Tra Vinh. As soon as students are done with their classes at the university, they’ll be playing football.
I played my first game of football within my first week in Tra Vinh. I sucked. Despite being athletic and playing sports all my life, my foot-eye coordination was seriously lacking compared to my hand-eye coordination. I could run. I could kick. But running while kicking the ball? Ha. You think being a dancer would help with my footwork? Ha ha. Despite being terrible at football, it was incredibly fun. I forgot how much fun it was to play team sports and I was hooked after that first game. With my annoying prodding to my fellow footballers, we started playing football almost every week.
This didn’t come without challenges. Of course, it’s frustrating to suck at something. Some weeks I played okay, other weeks it felt like I had never played a sport before in my life. Improvement, if any, was slow.
The biggest challenge for me though was playing football as a female in a male-dominated country. Not that the U.S. is perfect when it comes to gender equality, but this was something that struck me as a particular challenge in Vietnam; in ways that I’d never encountered before. I should mention that while there is a lot of football playing going on during leisure time, it’s mostly, if not exclusively, only males playing. I grew up with a knack for athletic activities and it was never an issue to play sports as a female growing up. In my life, I did little league basketball, was on the track and field, tennis, dance, and cheerleading teams in high school. Played intramural American football and basketball in college. This participation was something I took for granted. Now, I do play on co-ed team in Vietnam. We’re one of the few co-ed teams in Tra Vinh. I’ve only seen one, maybe two, other co-ed teams in Tra Vinh. It’s not that common for females and males, at least in Tra Vinh, to play sports together. You can spot one or two females littered through groups playing volleyball or featherball, but rarely will you see females partaking in a game of football with males. It just doesn’t happen.
The co-ed team that I’m a part of came about because the females that I play with really wanted to learn how to play football. They told me when they first started playing, it took a lot of courage and bravery to ask their male friends to join their team and then to rent a field to play on. People are used to seeing us play together by now but sometimes when I tell people that I play football, and with males at that, people are quite shocked and think it very strange. As expected, playing on the field has also had a number of challenges as a female. Most of the females I play with had never really taken part in sports besides their required physical education courses. When I first started playing, it was a common occurrence for the women on my team to scream and shield themselves if a ball was coming their direction. The men on our team rarely passed to females or let them really be a part of the game. As a female on the football field, I was determined to get better and show, females and males, that a female could play football. With males. Tra Vinh is pretty conservative and hold onto a lot of traditional gender stereotypes. It’s expected for women to get married, have kids, and take care of the household.
I remember one football match in particular where I got notably frustrated. It was one of those games where the males were hogging the ball and passing only to males. At one point, the females had stopped playing and were all on the sidelines. I asked them what the matter was and that they should keep playing but they kept saying they were tired, didn’t want to run anymore, and how it’s okay because women are weaker than men. I’d had it. I got pretty mad at them and went on a big rant about perceptions of women and how they all want to get better at playing but don’t actually want to put in the hard work and dedication that it’ll take. I felt pretty bad about it later, since the females on my team looked pretty glum after my outburst. It’s an unfair environment for females who want to play sports since society doesn’t think you’re capable. How could you think you’re capable when others don’t? That game was our low point.
After some encouraging words and reminders of why we wanted to play football though, our playing has improved a ton, including cooperation and teamwork among teammates, both male and female. The females on my team even took part in the first ever female football tournament in Tra Vinh. It was such a fun, inspiring, and empowering experience for all of us to play football with each other and with other females who want to play. One of my proudest moments in Vietnam so far was when a friend of mine thanked me for being a positive example for them to continue to play football.
Perceptions of gender equality in Vietnam still have a long way to go but I hope that our playing football as females has been able to alter some of those perceptions and make a difference. No matter how small. Or big. I’m not the best player but I’ve gotten a ton better and intend on continuing to play.