For 89 minutes on Sunday, Long An and Ho Chi Minh City played a great game of soccer. The match was especially exciting for Long An, the underdog in Vietnam’s top-flight league. With the score level at 2-2, the bottom-ranked team looked like it would take home a point for a draw against their big-city rivals. But then the 90th minute happened and everything fell apart.
One of Long An’s players got tangled up in the goal box with his Ho Chi Minh City opponent, resulting in a tumble that the referee thought warranted a penalty. Suddenly with the prospect of yet another loss on the scoresheet, Long An’s demeanor changed. Players first tried to argue with the referee, who while perhaps making a harsh call for a soft penalty, would not change his mind. (Without the benefit of standardized video replay, that rarely, if ever, happens in this game.) And so Long An’s players decided to protest.
At first they walked off the field, refusing to participate in what would eventually put Ho Chi Minh City in the lead. After being convinced to return to the field, however, a few players decided to still pretend they weren’t there.
Long An goalkeeper Nguyen Minh Nhut turned his back to the ball during the penalty shot, while other players went on to stand idly by as Ho Chi Minh City soared by to score two more goals in stoppage time. Long An ended up losing the game, 5-2, but the worst punishment was yet to come.
On Wednesday, the Vietnamese Football Federation slapped two-year bans on Nhut and Long An captain Huynh Quang Thanh for their involvement in the wacky protest. The federation also suspended the team’s coach for three years.
“The Long An players’ unsportsmanlike behavior in reaction to the referee’s decision is unfortunate,” Secretary-General Le Hoai Anh said in a statement. “[The behavior] affected the image of soccer in Vietnam, not only on the local level, but also internationally.”
Long An accepted the punishment shortly after it was announced, and offered an official apology on behalf of the suspended players and the coach.
“Personally, I’m sorry about what happened on the field,” former club chairman Vo Thanh Mission said at a news conference, shortly before resigning from his position on Wednesday, as well. “We created an ugly incident that has affected Vietnamese soccer due to the unacceptable actions of goalkeeper Minh Nhut and the other players.”
Vietnam’s soccer federation said it plans to use what happened this week as an educational opportunity “to educate players about manners and competition.” The federation also said it would continue “promoting the honest spirit of noble competition, professionalism [and] absolute respect of the referee.”
While this style of protest appears to be unique to Vietnamese soccer, other leagues around the world have had their own issues regarding players arguing with the referees.
The problem became so bad in English soccer that the English Football Association teamed up with the Premier League last summer to impose a new set of rules governing player behavior toward match officials. It’s now a yellow card offense to visibly disrespect, confront, run toward or make physically contact with the referee even if it’s in a nonaggressive manner. If any of the above is done aggressively, the yellow card becomes a red for automatic ejection.
Several players, including Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Stoke’s Shay Given and Bournemouth’s Harry Arter, have all been carded under the new rules.
“There are a lot of players now who are complaining during a game,” FIFA’s chief technical development officer Marco van Basten told the BBC in December. “I am sure the behavior of the players can be better — we are thinking about putting it back in the right direction.”