By Jason Szep
HANOI Dec 23 (Reuters) - Under the watch of plainclothes police, midfielder Nguyen Van Phuong unleashed a powerful left-foot drive into the top corner. Dissidents cheered from the sidelines. "Down with China," some shouted. Phuong pumped his fist.
As tensions between Beijing and Hanoi escalate over the South China Sea, Vietnamese anti-China protesters who face repeated police crackdowns are finding a new form of political expression: soccer.
"People don't feel scared playing soccer," said Phuong, the team captain, after a practice match in the capital, Hanoi.
They call themselves "No U FC" -- a reference to the U-shaped line China has drawn around almost the entire South China Sea, passing close to Vietnam, then around Malaysia and north to the Philippines, an area where potential oil deposits, strategic shipping routes and fishing rights converge in one of Asia's most combustible territorial disputes.
"FC" stands for Football Club. Or, as some players say, "Fuck China".
The team illustrates mounting resentment of China whose sovereignty claims over the stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.
The club was formed after police arrested dozens of anti-China protesters who had gathered peacefully almost every weekend from June to August last year. They were at first tolerated in the tightly controlled Communist country where public dissent is rare. But the authorities feared they could evolve into a wider, harder-to-control anti-government movement, said several diplomats with high-level government contacts.
Some of those arrested were accused of turning against the state. Among the protesters were intellectuals and bloggers whose anger extended well beyond Beijing to sensitive domestic issues - from a widening rich-poor divide to land evictions, police brutality and restrictions on freedom of expression.
After the crackdown, Phuong and other protest leaders met at Thuy Ta, a popular cafe near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, to plot their next move. Police ordered the cafe's owners not to serve them. They went to another cafe, and soon that was shut down.
"That's when we decided to start the soccer team," said Phuong. "We needed a way to meet regularly."
About 30 players turned up for their first practice on Oct. 30 last year. By March, they had their first high-profile game against a team sponsored by PetroVietnam, a state company that has riled China by exploring for oil in the South China Sea. No U FC's supporters waved anti-China banners and shouted "down with Chinese aggression".
Police ordered PetroVietnam not to play, said Phuong. The field's owner ordered them off the grounds, for good. Police officials were unavailable to comment on this story.
CAT AND MOUSE
No U FC engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities for several months, gathering at various fields in Hanoi often only to be shooed away. They wore black-and-white soccer jerseys with a crossed-out U-shaped crest on the front. Emblazoned on the back: "Hoàng Sa", the Vietnamese name for disputed islands also known as the Paracels.
Since September, they have gathered twice a week at an artificial-turf field owned by the military, an institution the protesters say appears sympathetic to their cause. But undercover police usually keep watch.
On a recent Sunday, nearly 100 No U FC members showed up. They take pride in their diversity: one is a poet, another a banker. Their ages range from 10 to 60. Some play barefoot.
Beyond their common beliefs, they are united by something else: nearly all have been detained at some point, along with supporters such as Ta Tri Hai, a violinist in a straw cowboy hat who played folk music on the sidelines.
"We're getting stronger because of social media," said Nguyen Van Dung, a goalkeeper and protest organiser. The club has swelled to about 120 members who communicate closely on Facebook.
He criticised the government for what he sees as a weak response to assertions of Chinese sovereignty, including last month when Chinese fishing boats were accused of cutting a seismic cable attached to a PetroVietnam vessel exploring near the Gulf of Tonkin.
"The Vietnam government needs to put more pressure on China," he said.
That looks unlikely to happen.
RELUCTANCE TO COMPLAIN TOO LOUDLY
Vietnam depends heavily on China. Imported Chinese machinery, refined oil and steel are at the heart of Vietnam's factory-fuelled economy, stretching Vietnam's trade deficit with China to $13 billion in 2011 from $185 million in 2001.
Chinese resentment runs deep, rooted in feelings of national pride and the struggle for independence after decades of war and colonialism. Faded grey pagodas etched with Chinese characters are studded around Hanoi, a reminder of the more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule that ended in the 10th century.
Some recall the invasion of Chinese forces in northern Vietnam in 1979 and the border skirmishes that continued into the 1980s. Chinese money began trickling in from 1991, when ties were normalised, reaching $120 million in investments by 1999.
Since then, Chinese investment has surged to $21 billion when combined with the value of Hong Kong projects in Vietnam.
This helps explain Vietnam's reluctance to complain loudly over each Beijing provocation, said diplomats.
At a Nov. 19 summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Cambodia, China stalled debate on a resolution of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, rebutted attempts to start formal talks on the issue and avoided any rebuke from Obama Administration over its territorial ambitions. While the Philippines lodged a formal protest, there were no public statements from Vietnam.
Days later, when China's southern Hainan province authorised police to board and seize foreign ships operating "illegally" in its waters in the South China Sea from next year, the Philippines, Singapore and the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed concern. Vietnam kept silent.
Only when Chinese boats were accused of sabotaging the Vietnamese oil exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable did authorities issue a condemnation on Dec. 4.
Phuong, 25, wants his government to show more consistency in its public statements over China's territorial ambitions. And he doesn't understand why authorities won't support him.
"We're patriots," he said.
He has been arrested three times and lost his job at an electronics shop after police pressured the owner, he said. Teammate Le Dung is equally resolute. His wife, he said, divorced him because he wouldn't stop protesting. Another player, La Viet Dung, tattooed the club's logo on his arm.
Among the club's fans are well-known dissidents such as Le Gia Khanh, 80, who was imprisoned for six years for helping former colonial ruler France during the First Indochina War that ended in 1954. He was jailed a second time during the Vietnam War with the United States.
"This team exists to prove that the fire in our hearts is still alive," he said after cheering the team from the sidelines.