ANZAC Day AFL Brings Mateship to Vietnam

Australia’s ANZAC Day AFL is underpinned by mateship no matter where it is played, but in Vietnam this is taking on a particularly profound meaning. Since its inception in 2010, the ANZAC Friendship Match at Vung Tau has been the catalyst for an ever-strengthening friendship between Australia and Vietnam.

Over the years, a close community of people from both nations has grown around the match and its host team, the Vietnam Swans. Every year, players and spectators join together in respect for all those who made sacrifices during one of Asia’s most horrific modern conflicts, no matter what side they were on, and to show their appreciation and support for Vietnam today.

Match Founded on Respect for Both Sides

Former President of the Vietnam Swans, Phil Johns, was first struck by the idea of an ANZAC Match for Vietnam in 2009, when the Swans played in the Thailand Tigers ANZAC Commemorative Match at Kanchanaburi.

“25 April that year fell on a Saturday so we went to the Dawn Service at Hellfire Pass and that was followed by the game,” he says. “Three ex POWs were there at the game. Listening to them speak [at the service] had been incredible – to learn so much.” Current Swans Captain, Bill Crang, agrees. “It was really humbling…and that was when we were like wow there’s quite a bit of power to this.”

The following year, the ANZAC AFL had its first run in Vietnam. “We held a domestic match where the Vietnam Swans fielded the two teams,” says Phil. “It was a relatively low key event in terms of marketing as we needed to ensure that we could negotiate the sensitivities involved.”

Cambodian Eagles teammates gear up for the game ahead

The day began with a welcome address from Phil, followed by a moments silence led by the Australian Ambassador, Allaster Cox, and all three countries’ National Anthems. In his address, Phil explained what the Swans were hoping to achieve with the match and why they were holding it.

“The Vietnam Swans is just an Aussie Rules Club made up of ordinary people from different backgrounds who are living in an extraordinary place,” he said. “We are humbled by the generosity shown to us by those who have so warmly welcomed us into their country, and…The Vietnam Swans hope that this match will help build the ever strengthening friendship between two friends: Australia and Vietnam.”

Fans and teammates watching the pre-match game

In the match later that day, the Swans wore two black armbands while playing instead of the traditional single band – one on each arm – as a symbol of who they were playing for. “We all live here and we’re very thankful to live here,” says Captain, Bill. “We have a deep respect for anyone who fought and on both sides – it would be two or none, we’d never do one.”

 

Tuan Nhan from the Vietnam Swans gets down amongst the Vung Tau dust for a contested ball.

 

We Played Here During the War

After its launch in 2010, the ANZAC Friendship Match quickly sparked interest among the Veteran community back in Australia. Although the Swans didn’t know it at the time, the location they had chosen for the match had also been used for Aussie rules during The War in a league then known as the VFL (Vietnam Football League).

Two weeks after the game, ex-serviceman Stan Middleton left a comment on the Swans website. “A full scale Aussie Rules Competition between [seven] Australian units was conducted [twice a year],” he wrote. “We initially played all our games where the Greyhound Racing Track is now in Vung Tau… and we played 14 a side because of the ground being a soccer ground.”

Retired RAAF serviceman Ron Vernon also came across Vietnam’s ANZAC AFL online, shortly after the game. “The Swans just put different things on Facebook I suppose and that’s how I picked it up one night,” he says. “I contacted Phil Johns who was running it and we communicated from there.”

Winning team, Vietnam Swans, are presented the Friendship Shield by veteran Ron Vernon.

Like today’s ANZAC Match, friendship was a core feature of the VFL. Back then, the game was a valuable expression of mateship for its players and an important way to raise their spirits. “It was seen as a huge morale booster for the soldiers based in Vung Tau,” says Stan. “I know my unit loved it and looked forward to every game. We would take at least a truckload of supporters with us, as well as a truckload of players. A truckload of beer too!”

“It was a fairly tough competition because some of the people used to play in the top Melbourne teams and they were pretty good footballers!” Ron remembers, “Every game was played to compete but after the game we’d all get together and have a BBQ and a drink, it was a way of relaxing and just friendship really.”

Today’s ANZAC match is a similar mix of serious competition and friendly beers. A strong community of locals, expats, veterans and AFL enthusiasts from all over the world has gathered around the annual event in commemoration and mutual respect.

It comprises three games – two matches earlier in the day and the main game hosted by the Vietnam Swans with their two black arm-bands. “This year we saw the first women’s match in Vietnam,” says club President, Eric Kerrison. “We also have a legends game, which includes players from all walks of life from Veterans to ex-residents of Vietnam and local players just wanting to be involved.”

Vietnamese and Australians Bond Over the Footy

The Swans team itself is a tight-knit group of men of a range of nationalities, skill sets, fitness levels and ages. They train every week at HCMC’s RMIT, ending each session with beers, sausages and quite often torrential monsoon rain. “There’s a little cafe out the front that also sells beers and it used to be behind a huge tree,” says captain, Bill. “You’d just stand there and ask the tree for beer, and the owner would bring it out. So the boys called it the beer tree!”

A growing number of club members are Vietnamese, and to teammate Dinh Anh, the diversity within the Swans is an ideal way to share cultures, language and life experiences. He joined the club in March 2016. “I find the sport so interesting because you can tackle and kick and use the whole body to play with the ball,” he says. “I think more and more Vietnamese people will want to play [AFL] because they can learn about Australia and practise their English.”

The Vietnamese players also offer a new dimension to the way the team plays. “We’ve got a few Vietnamese players now that are at a good game level,” says Captain, Bill. “They’re smaller and faster so they offer a totally different side to our game.”

To Bill, the future of Vietnam’s AFL lies in generating more local involvement. “Having more Vietnamese players involved will get us playing more footy, get the standards up, get us exposure locally in the community,” he says. “And it’s great fun! We really try to have a special focus on bringing local guys in – it’s become a fundamental objective of the club.”

But while they are an increasingly diverse demographic, the Swans are first and foremost good mates. “You might ask some people from other clubs here “what does this guy do for a job” and they have no idea, whereas I know awkward amounts of stuff about every guy in ours,” he says. “Back in Australia the boys from footy clubs share a lot of things from their lives and it’s the same thing here…”

The friendship within the Swans club also extends to other members of the community, particularly the Australian Veterans who make the trip out for the ANZAC Friendship Match each year. “The Swans are very inclusive of all us old VFL players,” says ex-serviceman, Stan Middleton. “The shield they play for is modelled on the one we played for during the war! [And] they named their key note speech after the game after me – “The Middleton Address” – which was a huge honour.”

This year a few Vietnamese ex-servicemen also got involved with the ANZAC match, coming to the post-match dinner later in the day. “The Aussie Vets living in Vung Tau reached out to them and they have all started to go for coffees and beers together as mates,” says Swans captain, Bill. “A few joined us at the dinner…there are heaps of photos of the guys all together. It’s become the stage where the [Australian] Vets are coming back and trying to do good things and the Vietnamese Vets are…welcoming them. I think that’s amazing.”

 

Football Club Members Help People in Need

Two such Australians, Veteran Ron and his wife Ailsa, have been coming to Vung Tau for years. They work with the Center for the Protection of Children at Long Hai, raising funds for the Center through their own initiative, The Princess Project, which was set up in 2008.

According to Ron and Ailsa, most of the children at the Center are abandoned and many are HIV positive. Most of them have been there for a long time. “It used to be that [parents] could just bring children in but now they really have to have a reason,” says Ailsa. “Now, [many of] the kids are abandoned. They’ll take them to the beach and just leave them there or the Center will find kids living on the streets.”

My Huong, the Director of the Center, contacts the Project to let them know what the Center needs, and they provide the funds. “We never give money to the Center,” says Ron. “We just keep raising it and when My Huong says they need something we try to buy it for them.” My Huong has also put them in touch with a few families in the Vung Tau community who are equally as in need of help.

Although Ron and Ailsa work with donations from a range of individual sponsors, their work is also supported by the Swans, who hold fundraising events to raise money for the Princess Project’s initiatives.

According to Swans President, Eric, this is a fundamental part of the football club. “It is a passion for the Swannies,” he says. “We have supported various charities over the years by hosting fundraising events and we currently support Swim Vietnam and the Vung Tau orphanage.”

Their work with Swim Vietnam, a charity organisation providing free swimming and water safety lessons to children and training local adults as swimming instructors, involves raising money to support their initiatives. “It is heartbreaking from an Australian point of view, and probably a community point of view, to know that more kids die from drowning here in Vietnam than in road accidents,” says Eric.

The Swans don’t run for profit, charging their players just enough to cover costs. “We kind of exist to keep rolling,” says Captain, Bill. “On Grand Final Day we make a bit of cash, but everything else including ANZAC Day is actually for charity.”

To Bill, this kind of work is the most profound aspect of the Swans football club. “From our perspective [this work] lets us exist for a much better purpose,” he says. “Let’s be honest, we play pretty average football in a strange place, so… it just makes it that much more rewarding. I think it’s one of the strongest things we’ve got.” A number of club members outside the team itself also work in the Vung Tau community, offering support to people who need it out of both compassion and respect. To them, this work is a way to express their appreciation and compassion for Vietnam today, in a country they now call home.

Comments

  1. Excellent article and who would ever have known about it!! Well researched and well written as always.

  2. Rocket Nguyen says:

    Good work Zoe!

    You captured all the main players: Fabbo, Billy Crang, Eric Kerrison, and Ron & Ailsa Vernon.

    The Swans are working hard to get the Vietnamese boys playing the game.

    I coached the All-Stars at this year’s Anzac match and we had quite a number play. Speedy and clever.
    It was rewarding to know several of them were selected to play for the All Asia team in Shanghai prior to the Port v Suns AFL game.

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