Players and supporters of “No U FC”, a soccer team of Vietnamese anti-China protesters, posing for a photograph before their match at a stadium in Hanoi on April 15.
“No U FC” is a reference to the U-shaped line China has drawn around almost the entire South China Sea.
The banner reads:
“Delete the U-shaped map, defend the country”
“People don’t feel scared playing soccer,” said Nguyễn Văn Phương, 25, the team captain.
Under the watch of plainclothes police, midfielder Nguyễn Văn Phương unleashed a powerful left-foot drive into the top corner.
Dissidents cheered from the sidelines.
“Down with China,” some shouted. Phương pumped his fist.
As tensions between Beijing and Hà Nội continue to simmer over the Việt Nam’s East Sea, Vietnamese anti-China protesters who face repeated police crackdowns are finding a new form of political expression:
“People don’t feel scared playing soccer,” said Phương, the team captain, after a practice match in the capital Hà Nội.
They call themselves “No U FC” – a reference to the U-shaped line China has drawn around almost the entire Việt Nam’s East Sea, an area where potential oil deposits, strategic shipping routes and fishing rights converge in one of Asia’s most combustible territorial disputes.
The team illustrates mounting resentment of China whose sovereignty claims over the stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland South-east Asia set it directly against United States allies Việt Nam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.
The club was formed after police arrested dozens of anti-China protesters who had gathered peacefully almost every weekend from June to August last year.
They were at first tolerated in the tightly controlled communist country where public dissent is rare.
But the authorities feared they could evolve into a wider, harder-to-control anti-government movement, said several diplomats with high-level government contacts.
Some of those arrested were accused of turning against the state.
Among the protesters were intellectuals and bloggers whose anger extended well beyond Beijing to sensitive domestic issues – from a widening rich-poor divide to land evictions, police brutality and curbs on freedom of expression.
After the crackdown, Phương and other protest leaders met at Thủy Tạ, a popular cafe near Hà Nội’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake, to plot their next move.
Police ordered the cafe’s owners not to serve them.
They went to another cafe, and soon that was shut down.
“That’s when we decided to start the soccer team,” said Phương.
“We needed a way to meet regularly.”
About 30 players turned up for their first practice in October last year.
“No U FC” engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities for several months, gathering at various fields in Hà Nội often only to be shooed away.
They wore black-and-white soccer jerseys with a crossed-out U-shaped crest on the front.
Emblazoned on the back:
“Hoàng Sa”, the Vietnamese name for the disputed isles also known as the Paracels.
Since September, they have gathered twice a week at an artificial-turf field owned by the military.
Undercover police usually keep watch.
On a recent Sunday, nearly 100 club members showed up.
They take pride in their diversity: one is a poet, another a banker.
Their ages range from 10 to 60.
Some play barefoot.
Beyond their common beliefs, they are united by something else:
Nearly all have been detained at some point.
“We’re getting stronger because of social media,” said protest organiser Nguyễn Văn Dũng, a goalkeeper.
The club has swelled to about 120 members who communicate regularly on Facebook.
Phương, 25, wants his government to show more consistency in its public statements over China’s territorial ambitions.
He said he does not understand why the authorities do not support him.
“We’re patriots,” he said.
Among the club’s fans are well-known dissidents such as Lê Gia Khánh, 80.
“This team exists to prove that the fire in our hearts is still alive,” he said after cheering the team from the sidelines.