November 16, 2020
Olympique de Saigon, Despì 1994
A different continent, a different life, the same passion. Those of the colours, the club, the culture. Twenty-six years ago, Olympique de Saigon was born in Asia. And the most famous Niçois of Vietnam are still there with their shirts, their trips, their passion and adventures.
Everything started with an email to the #MonGymMaFamille address that tracked some three decades of love. The sender? Philippe Vo. And as attachments: press articles, an OGC Nice shirt, and a story to be told. A few email exchanges later, and we were face-to-face.
Philippe came to the club's 'new' offices last month for the first time having previously only been to the Charles-Ehrmann site, and told us about his two Olympiques: the one he has supported since he was born in 1963, and the other that he himself founded. For him, the two go hand-in-hand. From his first visit to the Stade du Ray in his early teens, he fell in love with the Rouge-et-Noir and the team of Leïf, Jean-Marc, Jean-Pierre and Roger, who might not have won trophies, but did win "pure love! Thanks to that era, I got goosebumps in the stadium."
'IT'S NOT A DEMOCRATIC ORGANISATION, THEY DIDN'T HAVE A CHOICE'
Though firmly attached to his club and his birthplace, Philippe's wanderlust took him elsewhere come his 20s. "I'd always wanted to go round the world, so as soon as I could, I headed to Vietnam." It's the early 90s, and with his visa in hand, he headed to Asia. "Vietnam was opening up," he explains. "The conditions were very diffcult. At the start, there were only about 50 French people in Ho Chi Minh City. We said to ourselves that we had to find somewhere to play football. When we did that, we thought of founding a club, because the Vietnamese also love football. With two friends — one a Marseille fan, the other Bordeaux — we founded Olympique de Saigon." Could it have been an Olympique tribute to anyone else but the Gymaste Club de Nice? "Not a chance," adds Philippe. "It's not a democratic organisation. They didn't have a choice, I got top prize."
So the adventure began, and what an adventure! "At the start, we played in potato fields with coconut trees all around, just for fun. We asked the companies in which we worked for money, to rent stadia and buy shirts. And little by little, we have become a semi-serious team." So serious in fact that Olympique de Saigon, in which two or three Niçois play, started to make a name for themselves. So much so that two of their players ended up playing for local first division clubs.
The first is Frédéric Rault, who's still at the head of the team today.
The second is David Serene. A director at Virbac (Carros) in Vietnam, he managed to get himself and his company into the spotlight by winning the Vietnam Cup and finishing the competition's top scorer and MVP.
Touched by this link with the other side of the world, Jean-Luc Bailet (OGC Nice's former Director General, who passed away in 2014) sent a team's worth of shirts to Philippe Vo. "At the time, there was no TV, Internet, or things like that. Every weekend, the club was all together. Every day, during lunch — because we all worked near each other — we went to eat at our friend's place, 'Chez Bibi', and we had our names and the badge of our favourite club on our chairs. Olympique de Saigon was important for our social life. Thanks to it, we became friends for life."
'WE PLAYED GUINGAMP A WEEK AFTER THEIR DEFEAT IN THE COUPE DE FRANCE '
In 1996, two years after the club was formed, Olympique de Saigon won their first tournament in Cambodia, "the best memory" of its president: "It gave us a name and got us invited to expat tournaments in south-east Asia." Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the 'other' Gym got around. "It was such fun! We went, we played, and after, we partied," explained this ex-forward, converted to defender over time, and who was offered a "Pastis fountain" when he left the country by his teammates.
Another stand-out memory is playing — and only losing 3-1 — against Guingamp: "They came to Asia for a tournament, a week after losing in the Coupe de France to Le Gym in 1997. When they came out onto the pitch, they saw our shirts and couldn't believe it. It went really well. They were a lot better than us, but it was a really nice moment."
While France's 1998 World Cup win was celebrated at home, the team went to South Korea to watch Les Bleus in action four years later. And he even got back to see his first love. "Before, I could only come back for three or four games a year. Once, the game was postponed, and I paid €400 to change my plane ticket, which meant I must have had the most expensive ticket in the stadium. I've never given up on Le Gym and never will. I've got three children, two who live in the USA, and there was never a question of them doing that either."
Since 2016, Philippe has been back in France, but returns once a month to Asia to his "second home". Olympique de Saigon matches are now filmed and commentated, his club has grown, just like Le Gym. "You're going to think I'm mad, but 30 years ago, I said that OGC Nice would be European champions if they had a stadium, a youth academy and an owner who would invest. Thirty years later, we're not European champions, but we've moved forward…"