— Last week, the Vietnamese government surprised many with its decision not to host the 2019 Asian Games.
Despite being ranked a not-so-lofty 116 in the FIFA World Ranking Table
, Vietnamese fans at any big soccer match can attest to high enthusiasm when it comes to supporting their country in international events.
Soccer tends to rouse the most fervor, with the logos of top teams like Manchester United, Inter Milan and Barcelona often emblazoned on motorbikes, helmets and clothing. But other sports, like badminton and martial arts, are popular, too.
That is why the government’s decision not to host the Asian Games in 2019 came as a surprise to many observers, including Vietnam expert Professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
"This is a country that likes to be a centerpiece, that is sports mad," Thayer said. "It just surprised me because usually Vietnam uses these opportunities to showcase itself."
The reaction from inside the country, however, suggests that many saw it coming.
In a statement released late Thursday, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said Vietnam did not have enough experience at hosting large sporting events, and was also facing socio-economic difficulties.
Hosting an international sporting event can "contribute to socio-economic development, promoting the country’s images and increasing its position," the statement said. But if the event is not a success, "the effects will be reversed.”
Hanoi won the bid to host the games in 2012, beating the Indonesian city of Surabaya. However, the anticipated costs were criticized by the public amid concerns for the country’s economic growth rate, which at 5 percent annually has been hampered by inefficient state enterprises and a beleaguered banking system.
The costs of hosting the event were estimated at $150 million, according to local media reports. But some put the price tag much higher.
The move prompted some speculation that Vietnam was wary of bad publicity following Russia’s experience hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Thayer said he does not think this was likely.
"Who apart from a handful of people would be worried about the expense? High speed rail, that’s an expense that the PM loses," he said. "But the Asian Games - it would be circuses for the masses."
Hoang Quoc Vinh, director of international cooperation at the Viet Nam Sports Administration, said in an email to VOA that the Vietnamese government has invested a lot in this area, especially in encouraging young talent.
He said it was a “pity” Vietnam is not hosting the Asian Games and described the feeling like “when a football is about to go into the net but suddenly changes its direction and finally lands outside the net.”
However, he said the faith and thirst for championship always stays inside sports people, adding, “I believe that Vietnamese sports will have many opportunities to win in the future.”
Lacking popular support
The news has been generally welcomed inside Vietnam. Economist Nguyen Quang A called the move a “brave decision”.
"The government admitted the decision to host the event was made too quickly," he said. "While the country risks losing face by backing out now, the situation would have been much worse if it had gone ahead and held the games."
The Vietnamese media was positive about the move. Newspaper Tuoi Tre
wrote: “Many Vietnamese people have hailed Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s decision to withdraw Hanoi as host of the 2019 Asian Games.”
Before the decision was announced, the newspaper said it held a survey on whether Vietnam should host the games. Of more than 13,600 respondents, 84 percent did not support the idea.
Reports quoting officials at the Olympics Council of Asia said a decision on who would host the event instead of Vietnam in 2019 would be made at the next Asia Games, which is to be held in Incheon, South Korea, in September and October.
Two other countries have dropped out of hosting the games, South Korea in 1970 and Pakistan in 1978.