There was an atmosphere of sadness at the Thong Nhat Stadium on Saturday as Sai Gon FC were officially relegated out of the V.League 1 despite winning 2-1 over Becamex Binh Duong in the last matchweek of the 2022 V.League 1 season. The three points were not enough for the men in pink to survive as results elsewhere meant that Sai Gon would end the current league season bottom of the table, ending a 6-year tenure in the top-flight.
It was only in 2020 when things were on the up for Sai Gon – they finished 3rd in the league, had two of that year’s best players in Geovane and Pedro Paulo, and the shrewd tutelage of Vu Tien Thanh brought the best out of everyone. The men in pink also signed a cooperation deal with J.League 1 side FC Tokyo, with the club’s management seeking to implement a Japanese-styled philosophy within the team that would elevate them into becoming one of the big boys of Vietnamese football.
Fast-forward two years and Sai Gon instead found themselves in the verge of being dissolved altogether. A major overhaul of the playing squad in the 2021 off-season backfired massively in Sai Gon’s face and a change of head coaches from Tien Thanh, to Masahiro Shimoda, before settling on Phung Thanh Phuong did not change the men in pink’s fortunes that much. The abolishment of the 2021 season meant that Sai Gon were spared the chop despite being second-bottom of the league when it ended prematurely, but the 2022 season exposed the true monumental scale of the problems plaguing Sai Gon right now.
Prior to Saturday’s match against Binh Duong, reports emerged out that Sai Gon’s players were not paid 50% of their annual salary, which was estimated to be around VND 10 billion, with the club also owing more than VND 3 million worth of bonuses from the club’s wins and draws this season.
Things has gotten so bad that Australian winger Nicholas Olsen and French defender Rodrigo Nanitelamio went on strike in protest towards the club’s failure to pay what they owed to them. The fact that Olsen, who was signed from Brisbane Roar midway through the season, was Sai Gon’s form player throughout their relegation battle meant that the odds were stacked even more against them on Saturday.
Despite these setbacks Sai Gon refused to throw the towel easily in their final match of the season, knowing that they could still have a chance of survival if things go their way. Taking on a Binh Duong side who had virtually nothing to play for and with news filtering through the Thong Nhat that Ha Tinh had taken a 1-0 lead over Dong A Thanh Hoa after just three minutes at the Ha Tinh Stadium, Sai Gon took the lead in the 8th minute after Nguyen Hong Son managed to beat Lai Tuan Vu in the Binh Duong goal with an excellent shot from outside the area.
Sai Gon’s survival hopes were then boosted further after Thanh Hoa slammed home their equalizer around the same time Hong Son scored his goal.
Should the results stood there and then, Sai Gon’s better head-to-head record compared to Ha Tinh would ensure the men in pink’s survival, with both teams being tied in points.
However, Janclesio scored Ha Tinh’s second goal of the game in the 38th minute, ensuring that Sai Gon would once again sit bottom of the league.
Binh Duong’s decision to rest their key players in Nguyen Tien Linh, To Van Vu and Wellington Adao to name a few meant that Sai Gon would have the advantage in their do-or-die match, but they were forced into the defensive by the away side, having to rely on counterattacks to get a scratch on their opponents’ armor.
With Ha Tinh still commanding a 2-1 lead over Thanh Hoa, Sai Gon began to press themselves forward in search for another goal, and the men in pink finally got the breakthrough in the 50th minute. A cross from Nguyen Viet Phong was greeted with a powerful header from Matheus Vieira, doubling Sai Gon’s lead.
Sai Gon then had to soak up more pressure from Binh Duong as they surged forward to chase the game, with goalkeeper Pham Van Phong denying both Eydison and Tran Hoang Phuong, before conceding in the 80th minute after Nguyen Tran Viet Cuong took advantage of Doan Anh Viet’s mistake to stab home Binh Duong’s consolation goal.
Despite conceding late in the game, Sai Gon managed to defend their lead all the way into full-time, however their efforts were in vain as Ha Tinh also managed to defend their lead until the conclusion of their match. Ha Tinh’s win meant that they remain above Sai Gon at the end of the season, with two points separating the Saola in 12th place with 13th placed Sai Gon, who went down as a result.
With the season done and dusted and relegation confirmed, Sai Gon’s players and staff members once again face an uncertain future as the club’s financial future became more and more bleak with each passing day, threatening the men in pink’s existence as a whole.
“We might’ve won today but it feels quite sad as we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us,” lamented Sai Gon midfielder Huynh Tan Tai as quoted from VNExpress, “Today we can still fight in the field together but tomorrow the Sai Gon FC name might cease to exist. This is a very sad ending.”
A similarly bleak sentiment was voiced by head coach Thanh Phuong after the match.
“I’m very sad,” said Thanh Phuong, as quoted from VNExpress, “Despite the difficult situation that we’re in we’ve managed to fight until the end, but we need to face the reality that Sai Gon might no longer exist sooner than later.”
As Sai Gon’s existence hang in the balance, the men in pink saw their position in the league being replaced by 2022 V.League 2 champions Cong An Nhan Dan and runners-up Khanh Hoa FC.
CAND, who were backed by the Vietnam People’s Public Security (the country’s police force), are set to make their debut in the V.League 1. Being based in Ninh Binh Province and with the sponsorship of The Vissai Group, some might see this CAND team as being an indirect “reincarnation” of former top-flight side XM The Vissai Ninh Binh, who went under in 2015.
Khanh Hoa, on the other hand, are returning to the V.League 1 for the first time since relegation in the 2019 season. Back then known as Sanna Khanh Hoa BVN, Khanh Hoa clinched bronze in the 2018 season as well as finishing as runners-up in the 2017 Mekong Club Championship during their last stint in the top-flight.