Players from the Vietnam Swans and Indonesian Volcanoes after their draw in the 2019 Anzac Friendship Match

UNCANNILY, it was only in 2009 when Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City fought it out in the first-ever Anzac Friendship Match in Vũng Tàu that the Vietnam Swans realised that the ground they were playing on had so much history.

"The club had no idea that we had played footy at Vũng Tàu during the war as part of the Vietnam Football League, let alone on the same ground! I contacted them to let them know." Stan Middleton recalls.

The club was amazed at Stan's revelation, and this kickstarted the establishment of the annual match and cemented it as a tradition.

Stan Middleton, OAM, was in the Ordnance Depot in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and is a life member of the Vietnam Swans.

A game of Australian Football between two Australian units in Vung Tau in 1968

The Vietnam Swans compete in the AFL Asia competition. Among other key priorities, the club is inclusive and focuses on playing and growing the game in Vietnam whilst supporting the community they live in.

They also strive to strengthen Australian ties to Vietnam, while encouraging people of all backgrounds to be involved.

One way this happens is through the annual Anzac Friendship Match, in which the Swans participate.

The first Friendship Match was held in Vũng Tàu in 2010 on the original site where the Vietnam Football League played from 1966 to 1971. Originally contested among active Australian servicemen, it is now played each year at the Lord Mayor's Oval.

Alongside more harrowing wartime recollections, proud Vietnam veterans such as Middleton have fond memories of their contests on that particular footy field during the Vietnam War.

"It was very hot and humid, and there was tough competition. We played on really hard ground," Middleton said.

And he also recalls a football draft of a different kind.

"There were also quite a few noteworthy AFL players present due to National Service. The rivalry between units was jovial, but also very strong," he said. 

Stan Middleton in his playing gear in Vung Tau, Vietnam in 1968

Ron Vernon, who was posted to Vietnam from February 1966 to February 1967, worked in RAAF Communication in Vũng Tàu and Nui Dat.

"My team won the first organised AFL competition and were coached by our unit chaplain. I still have the trophy that we were all presented with." Vernon said .  

"We looked forward to playing. The games were hotly contested but were always followed by a social gathering of both teams with beers and a barbecue."

A medivac chopper on standby at an Australian Football game at Lord Mayors Oval in Vung Tau, 1967. Picture: Peter Carthew

Now, at every annual Anzac Friendship Match, a group of ex-pat Aussie Vietnam veterans mans the gate, sells raffle tickets and helps with publicity and catering.  

Veterans such as Middleton and Vernon also have the opportunity to speak to the players before the game and to present trophies along with other veterans.

The national anthems of Australia and New Zealand are performed by their country representatives while the Vietnamese national anthem is sung by a resident of Vietnam, often accompanied by performers in national dress.

"Among veterans, it is considered a great honour to be invited to recite 'The Oath' before the match," Stan adds.

For current Swans player Bill Crang, the Friendship Match is the highlight on his footy calendar.

"Having been there since the start it has become one of my favourite events and goes so far beyond a day of footy," Bill says.

"The atmosphere during a tight last quarter while Vietnam locals, and visiting Australian war veterans and their families, are cheering on has been the highlight of my sporting life."

Bill Crang and Joshua Lee present a wreath at the Dawn Service at Long Tan in 2014

Former AFL players also feature in this celebration of footy, invited to play in the Friendship Match.

Since his AFL retirement, former Collingwood player Matthew Francis, who played in three Anzac Day matches against Essendon, has relocated to Vietnam. He's been involved with the Swans through his brother Michael, one of the club's founders and its first Hall of Fame inductee. Matthew now runs coaching clinics and helps to umpire the Swans matches.

Another football veteran to have played in a Collingwood-Essendon blockbuster on April 25 is Ricky Olarenshaw. He was introduced to the Vietnam equivalent via his involvement with the Bali Geckos.

"Playing football in the AFL Asia competition is so unique," Olarenshaw said.

"When I moved to Bali in my 40s, I never imagined pulling on the boots again. Once I was introduced to the Geckos, I got the bug back and am now loving playing more than ever."   

With no other team on the island, Olarenshaw and his teammates need to travel far and wide to play competitive matches. One of his favourite tours has been to Vũng Tàu as part of the combined Indonesian Volcanoes team to play the Vietnam Swans in an Anzac Day clash in 2018.

"Just getting through the Last Post and the Australian national anthem before the game in the extreme heat was exhausting physically but also emotionally," he says.

Ricky Olarenshaw speaks to his players during the Shanghai Cup at Wellington College in Shanghai in 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Former North Melbourne tall Callum Urch starred for the Volcanoes in that particular match and kicked the winning goal. The Volcanoes celebrated their win against the hometown Swans like they had won an AFL Grand Final.

What happened next was a poignant moment that sums up what the Anzac Friendship Match is all about.

Olarenshaw recalled: "After we had taken off the boots and ankle strapping and shared a beer with the opposition, the scorers and goal umpires realised they'd made a mistake and the game was a draw! There was a collective refusal to play extra time."

It's not only veterans of the Vietnam War or veterans from the AFL competition keeping that Anzac spirit and the strong community sentiments alive.

Current Vietnam Swans President Eric Kerrison is one such person.

Every year as part of the celebrations around the Friendship Match, Kerrison drives the club's involvement with the local community and investment in developing the skills of Vietnam's future AFL stars. They provide support to local charities, the Long Hai School and the Vũng Tàu Children's Centre.

Vietnam Swans national president Eric Kerrison in action during an Anzac Legends v All Stars game in 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

"This is a day that many in the club look forward to as we get to spend some time with the kids and bring a smile to their faces. We normally take along some footballs and have an Auskick session," says Kerrison.

The kids in these sessions need to look no further for a hero than Nguyen Huynh Quang Vinh, a local who is going on six and a half years as a Vietnam Swan.

"I fell in love with footy because it is like a combination of soccer and rugby which were my favourite sports at that time," Vinh said.  

The reason Vinh has stayed so long with the club, however, is something beyond anything that happens on the footy field.

"The club's culture, friendship, and the opportunities they offer to local Vietnamese people off the field are some of the reasons why I love the Swans," he said. 

This love of club and country is certainly not lost on anybody that attends an Anzac Friendship Match.

"It is called the Friendship Match for the simple reason that we go down there to celebrate the community we have developed. I feel very privileged to be able to call Vietnam home," Eric Kerrison said. 

The respect and solemnity of the occasion is also appreciated by the Vietnam and AFL veterans alike who attend each year.

"I love the way the Swans involve us and how they respect us for our service during the war. They also wholeheartedly support charities in Vietnam. Many are now firm friends of mine and my family, even despite our age differences," says Stan Middleton.

Ron Vernon agrees.

"Vietnam holds many memories for me, but the club has created many more happy memories and friendships that I had never expected," he says.

"My wife and I have been named Life Members and consider that to be very special. They are a group whom we are proud to call friends."

Former Magpie Francis describes the three Anzac Day games at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that he took part in against Essendon as some of the most unbelievable moments of his lifetime.

Collingwood's Matthew Francis in action against Essendon on Anzac Day in 1997. Picture: AFL Photos

Considering his experiences, it would take something pretty special to match the sense of occasion he felt on the ground during those games.

"I rate the Anzac Friendship Match in Vũng Tàu equivalent to an Anzac Day at the 'G in terms of reverence, feeling and pride," Francis said.  

For current Vietnam Swan Nguyen Huynh Quang Vinh, it's a similarly beautiful sentiment.

"I think the Anzac Friendship Match is a great moment where people pay tribute to the soldiers from both sides in the past while showing love and kindness for a better future."