Nguyen Van Phuong , center, the captain and midfielder of the No-U FC soccer team, made up of Vietnamese anti-China protesters, controls the ball during a soccer match at a stadium in Hanoi. (Reuters)

They came together during protests against China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea. The protesters were harassed by the Vietnamese police, and dozens were arrested; their attempts to meet in cafes were blocked. So they came up with an innovative idea.

“According to the law, everyone has the right to play football,” said Nguyen Chi Tuyen, an activist and blogger. “So we found a way we can all gather together.”

That way was to form a soccer team.

For four years, dozens of players and supporters of No-U FC have gathered every Sunday in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, to kick a ball around — and talk politics. They also have joined together in political campaigns and in charitable work.

In the process, they have helped give birth to a small but growing civil society movement in Vietnam that is emerging as a new challenge to Communist Party rule.

No-U refers to their opposition to the U-shaped “nine-dash line” that China draws on maps to assert its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. FC stands for football club, although some also use an English-
language expletive that might be abbreviated that way to describe their attitude toward China.

Like many Vietnamese, they are angry that China seized control of the Paracel Islands after a battle with South Vietnamese forces in 1974; that it continues to harass Vietnamese fishermen; and that it has now embarked on a massive program of land ­reclamation in the Spratly archipelago. But the anger goes deeper.

“In the beginning, we joined together against China,” said a player who gave his name only as Duc to avoid harassment by police. “But we know the problem is not China, it is our government. The governments in Vietnam and China are the same Communists — they are connected.”

The club now has hundreds of members nationwide. Some have been jailed — two are currently in prison. But others have large followings on Facebook.

During No-U FC’s fourth-
anniversary party, the lights suddenly went out in the restaurant it had booked and a group of men burst in and started throwing bottles around and overturning tables, apparently to intimidate members.

Owners of soccer fields have come under pressure to withdraw permission for No-U FC to play, and an entire tournament was canceled when the police found out the team was among the competitors.

But it is away from the soccer field that the members say they have had their greatest impact.

To forge links with ordinary people, they have built schools in poor, rural areas and have supported farmers who have been thrown off their land to make way for development. In March, they added their weight to a campaign against government plans to chop down thousands of trees in Hanoi. Public pressure was so intense that the city government put a stop to the felling.

In November, several members of No-U FC took to the streets again to protest a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

As members of No-U FC describe it, the issues are all connected. The Communist Party in Vietnam, they say, is not defending their country’s national interests in the South China Sea because it depends on China’s Communist leaders to shore up its rule.

“The people who raise their voice against China, it is not just about China,” said a female member of the club who gave her name as Tuyet. “Our target is democracy — multiparty democracy, freedom and a more equal society.”

Vietnam’s Communist government fiercely suppresses dissent, and although about 50 political prisoners were freed in the past year during negotiations with the United States over a Pacific Rim trade pact, about 150 are thought to remain behind bars, according to Freedom Now, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But times are changing here, and civil society is growing. Inter­net penetration has mushroomed, with nearly 45 million people — almost half the population — now online. Facebook is enormously popular among the young.

“The state’s long-standing attempt to shape public opinion is crumbling under the reality of a relatively open online environment,” Michael Gray said in a research report on the Vietnamese Internet for SecDev, a Canadian think tank.

Physical attacks against dissidents and bloggers have increased — Tuyen says he was badly beaten up in May by plainclothes members of the security forces — and 14 citizen-journalists are in prison, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But the government gave up on an attempt to block Facebook in 2009 after its restrictions were easily bypassed, and Gray says social media are building bridges between dissidents and the general population.

In January, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that Facebook was so widely used that it was impossible to ban. He argued that the government had to do a better job at getting its message across.

In this environment, No-U FC has inspired others to form small civil society groups across Vietnam. The unregistered groups work on anything from land rights to advocating the release of political or religious prisoners, and their members say they are frequently harassed by the government. The government says there are 60 such groups, with hundreds of members.

“We are trying to spread our views on Facebook, to wake up others,” Duc said. “A lot of people don’t care about politics because they are scared of the Communist Party, that they will get put in prison. We are trying to prove we are not scared. The number of people who care about politics is growing.”

Lawyer and dissident Le Quoc Quan said about 300 people came to meet him at his home after he was released from jail in June, including a delegation from No-U FC and five government officials, despite a round-the-clock police guard.

“Why were people not afraid to come? Because they have the means of communication,” he said.

Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center show that Vietnamese people overwhelmingly favor free-market capitalism, but only 38 percent want to see multiparty democracy introduced in their country.

Yet the dissidents are gaining traction, and in anger at China they have seized on a powerful issue that unites many people here. In soccer terms, they may be the plucky underdogs, but they believe they can pull off victory against the odds.

“Civil society is small, it is fragile and its growth has been slower than I expected,” said Nguyen Quang A, a prominent intellectual, dissident and member of the Civil Society Forum who credits No-U FC with blazing a trail for others to follow.

“But I am quite optimistic,” he said. “You cannot tell when you will reach the tipping point.”

Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.