Tom Lewis returns to provide a historical perspective on recent advances in Taiwanese football
Look back at the football history books and you see some quirks, now ignored nations that were once about to do something special. The Dutch East Indies, in Indonesia these days, have gone to a World Cup once. Barcelona’s top scorer, ahead of Messi, played for the Philippines. And, if you watch the early Asian Cups and Games tournaments, you’ll see that one of the big names, and sometimes champions, was Taiwan.
This team, of course, represented the Republic of China rather than just the island. All of the players were from Hong Kong, and quite a few had fled the mainland after 1949. This meant that Taiwan was able to field a fairly powerful formation for a few decades, but, as the generations changed and that young players identified more closely with Hong Kong rather than a place they had probably never visited, Taiwanese football retreated from sight.
There were two reasons. The first, of course, is that football is a very minor hobby. A quick history lesson; Taiwan had not been integrated into the Chinese body politic until the Qing Dynasty, and even then was just a sort of wild and rebellious place. In 1895, the Japanese snatched control and remained in command until 1945. Social changes in Taiwan therefore mirrored what was happening in Japan which, in sporting terms, meant baseball was becoming the hobby of choice. After just four years of direct rule from Beijing after World War II, the island entered the American sphere of influence, strengthening the supremacy of baseball. The most important sportsmen in Taiwan are usually baseball players, often recruited by Japanese clubs, sometimes by the major leagues. Football barely registers.
Then there was politics. Beijing’s assertiveness spilled over into the sporting arena and suddenly the island’s athletes found themselves in the cold. FIFA has always recognized the local football authorities but they have been thrown adrift with Israel and the islands of Oceania in the Group, if not of Death, at least of air travel of an impractical length. There was no point in seeing the team get beaten by all the comers either. In the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, Taiwan played all of its away matches, accepting play-by-play to win doubles in Israel, Australia and New Zealand. They have scored once and conceded at least five goals each time.
They were allowed to return by Chinese Taipei’s linguistic sleight of hand. A flag of compromise, an anthem of compromise, but that means Taiwanese athletes can travel and compete without being hampered by politics. In 1989, they returned to the AFC after an absence of fifteen years.
Chinese Taipei had no players from Hong Kong and was now one of the small fish of Asia. There are quite a few of them and it was no use leaving them at the mercy of big predators in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. Thus, from 2004, the AFC adopted prequalification. For at least one game, even the smallest nation had a chance to win.
That’s why I ended up in Taipei in July 2011. The AFC pre-qualifiers were South Africa’s first road games 2014 and Chinese Taipei was drawn against Malaysia. The first leg in Kuala Lumpur was edged 2-1 by the home side in front of 45,000 spectators, a much larger crowd than most Taiwanese had ever seen, with the comeback four days later. Decent attendance was guaranteed by the distribution of free tickets, and the press and television managed to keep from covering Lady Gaga’s tour for long enough to generate additional interest.
The squad was made up of players from the local mix of college and corporate teams. Taiwan doesn’t really do professional sports beyond a bit of a dodgy baseball league, but there was one player on the island who had gone (slightly) towards bigger things. 22-year-old captain and attacking midfielder Chen Po-liang had been a high school star. He had just spent half the season with TSW Pegasus in Hong Kong and was returning to lead Taipower to the AFC President’s Cup. It was Asia’s third tier club tournament, so it didn’t show up on many people’s radar, but it was the first, and still the only, international trophy won by a Taiwanese club.
But he was not the center of attention. A few years ago, a CTFA press official got his hands on FIFA’s latest video game and went through the names that sought to store his squad. He thus meets Xavier Chen, right-back in Mechelen in Belgium. Chen is the most common surname in Taiwan and he wondered if this player, from a good European league, had any connection with the island.
The answer turned out to be yes. Xavier Chen’s grandfather was a diplomat from the Republic of China and his father had settled in Brussels. Chen, of course, harbored a desire to represent Belgium after leading them at U19 level, but that had been a decade ago. It was becoming evident that they had a remarkable new generation of De Bruynes, Hazards and Lukakus so when the call came from across the world his interest was piqued. In mid-2010, he visited the island, saw his relatives and accepted the offer of citizenship. Paperwork being what it is, he had not been cleared for the first leg but was now ready to make his debut.
The arrival of Xavier Chen created a sort of media storm by Taiwanese football standards. He was still uncertain when he spoke Chinese, so he preferred to communicate in French or English, and he did not know his teammates at all. However, as the team’s only top footballer, he knew full well what was expected.
Seventeen thousand fans showed up at the municipal stadium, bringing with them a sea of flags, although the only example of Chinese Taipei was that used for the anthems. A goal down after the first leg, the Taiwanese conceded the first, equalized at the half hour, then let in another five minutes before the break.
And then it started raining penalties. The first was a minute before half-time, sent by Chen Po-liang. In the middle of the second half, Chinese Taipei got another. Chen Po-liang stepped up again, the opportunity to level the scores on the whole rather high in his thoughts. He opted for the placement above power, neither succeeded and the keeper made an easy save.
Chen Po-liang was distraught then, when another kick was given a quarter of an hour from the end, he avoided taking it. Lively discussions ensued on the Taiwanese bench and, after a while, Xavier Chen wandered, ball in hand, to remind them that time was passing. One of the coaches saw him and motioned for him to leave, so he shrugged, trotted towards the goal area and stuck the ball in the top corner.
Overall, but behind on away goals, the home team threw what they could on their opponents, but to no avail. At the final whistle, Chen Po-liang collapsed in tears on the nearest shoulder (which belonged to your correspondent), the Malaysians expressed their displeasure at conceding three penalties (they all looked decent, but having so many awards can raise red flags in suspicious minds) and the general consensus was that this had been the best night of football Taipei had ever seen.
At this point, the downside of pre-qualifying became evident as the Taiwanese had no more valid matches in the schedule. It took over three years before they played in Taipei again, a friendly against Cambodia they lost. It was thought that they could bring Mechelen for a prestigious friendly match, but it did not come to pass.
That said, there were some positives that I like to think stem from that night. Xavier Chen has only become the first of a number of Taiwanese-born actors who have now represented the island. The trend became even more pronounced when Gary White became head coach and figures like Yaki Yen, Tim Chow and Will Donkin are now part of the squad. Xavier Chen was persuaded to return and was part of Chinese Taipei’s sensational victory over Bahrain in October 2017. Check out the 90th minute equalizer, Xavier Chen’s pass to Chen Po-liang. It is a thing of beauty.
And the other big plus is that mainland Chinese clubs have started to pay attention to Taiwanese talent which, of course, counts as nationals. Xavier Chen spent three lucrative seasons with Guizhou Renhe. Taiwan-born players like Wen Chih-hao, Chen Hao-wei and Ko Yu-ting have been entered. Better yet, Chen Po-liang quickly found himself in demand. He moved to Shenzhen in 2012 and has since performed for Shanghai Shenhua, Zhejiang Greentown and Changchun Yatai. Indeed, he scored for Yatai in the 3-0 victory over Chengdu in November, which confirmed his promotion back to the top flight.
I think it counts as a happy ending.