There was much jubilation among the sizable crowds in Taipei on National Day this Tuesday. No, they were not watching the Double Ten parade outside the Presidential Office. Instead, they were packed into the Taipei Municipal Stadium to cheer on the Taiwan national soccer team as they played Bahrain in a qualifying game for the 2019 Asian Cup.
There were 7,908 people in attendance at the game, which is considerably more than the teams matches usually attract. Why were they there? Perhaps it was a happy coincidence that this crucial home game fell on a bank holiday and National Day when patriotism in Taiwan is at its peak. Perhaps some were tempted by their entertaining 4-2 victory over Mongolia in a friendly game a few days previously. Or perhaps it was the appointment of new English manager Gary White that made them want to see how things had changed.
There was a degree of skepticism in the crowd and among the Taiwanese media in the run-up to this game, which was understandable. As recently as Sept. 5, Taiwan had traveled to Bahrain and been thumped 5-0.
And following the Taiwanese national soccer team has not always been a rewarding experience. They currently rank 151st in the world, according to FIFA’s most recent world rankings. This is actually a relatively high point having sat as low as 182nd in 2015. Occasional victories have been interspersed with regular, often heavy defeats, and the team has not qualified for the final stages of a major tournament since the Asian Cup of 1968.
A culture of negativity
In recent times, under local manager Chen Kuei-jen (陳貴人) and then recent Japanese coaches Toshiaki Imai (今井敏明) and Kazuo Kuroda (黑田和生), the soccer has frequently been dull and uninspiring and the players looking demotivated and lacking in confidence. Most are semi-professionals playing for one of the two Taiwanese semi-pro teams, Taipower FC and Tatung FC, and too often looked overawed by professional teams.
But with the appointment, just after that 5-0 defeat in Bahrain, of Englishman Gary White as manager, all of a sudden there is a different feel around the team. When he was appointed to the role, White was bullish about his ambitions for the side.
"The target is to reach the top 100 and go from there. That's the clear message. We want to qualify for the Asian Cup as well. I have always known the potential of [Taiwan]. They have a football history and a culture, it just needs to be galvanized a little bit. That is what I want to do.”
It was unusual to hear anyone speaking so positively about soccer in Taiwan. A negative narrative has long run through almost all media attention and the certainly the public perception of the team. This negativity was clearly affecting the team on the pitch too. White is adamant this has to stop and has been seen on TV adverts for the recent games encouraging fans to tune in, or better still come out and support the team.
He also pinpointed another problem which has held back soccer in Taiwan for too long. "The country has got fantastic facilities and now the government is getting behind the federation as well," he said after his appointment. "So there seems to be a real push. It is an exciting time to be going there."
Certainly, the lack of long-term funding for the Chinese Taipei Football Association (CTFA) has hamstrung the team in the past. There are ten players in the national team set-up who play their soccer overseas, the most prominent of whom is Xavier Chen ((陳昌源), who plies his trade in the Belgian top flight with KV Mechelen.
Chen is 33 years old now, but still only has a handful of caps for the team. In early 2016, he vowed never to play for Taiwan again after the CTFA refused to pay his travel costs from Belgium. This kind of amateurishness was hugely damaging for the team and its supporters.
But White insists all this is now in the past. Before the next game, away to Turkmenistan in November, he is taking the squad to a training camp in Qatar. This certainly appears to suggest that the CTFA is now being run more professionally and, most importantly, have the funding in place to support the team properly.
They have already been rewarded. After the Mongolia win, the Taiwan team worked hard against a superior Bahraini side on Tuesday, but still found themselves 1-0 down going into the final minute. But they kept going, their persistence buoying the crowd, and were rewarded with two remarkable late goals to clinch the most unlikely of victories.
Shirt of Taiwan's national soccer team.
Soccer in Taiwan has huge potential
Speaking afterwards, White was quick to single out both the CTFA and the supporters for credit. He also continued to push his positivity narrative saying afterwards “When I took the job, I always knew what potential there is [here]. The players are just waiting for the environment. Credit to the players. We only had six training sessions together before this game, but they are very receptive. The future for football here is right.”
Obviously, no-one should get too carried away after just one game. But the passion shown by the crowd on Tuesday is an indicator of just what success on the pitch can offer elsewhere. Taiwan is a nation too often divided by political allegiances, opinions of China, and so on. A successful national team can bring people together and build a sense of pride in their country.
It can also help to boost Taiwan’s standing in the world too. Soccer is the most popular team sport on the planet, with huge public and media interest. Success in soccer brings huge attention to a country. This is why China is currently investing so heavily in soccer. But they are going about it all wrong, taking their usual approach of throwing money at soccer rather than building constructively.
Taiwan should be looking to countries like Iceland for inspiration. Despite a population of around 330,000, their soccer team reached the quarter-finals of the 2016 European Championships and has just qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Taiwan has a much bigger pool of talent available, but it needs to find a way to utilize it properly.
One important step is to get a proper league in place here. The top level of men's soccer here was rebranded as the Taiwan Premier League at the start of 2017. But it is still made up of just two semi-professional sides and amateur outfits. There is even an ex-pat team playing at the top level. They play matches on an ad-hoc basis and have no ties to either cities or any meaningful fan base. This is not good enough.
It is not necessary to go professional, but a proper semi-professional league should be deliverable. Taiwan has a big enough population to justify a league of at least ten or twelve teams, based in cities across the country, playing each other home and away. This structure would allow teams to build a fan base and get people watching soccer regularly. It would also allow the development of an infrastructure to bring through the next generation of players.
Gary White is quite correct in his regular comment that there is huge potential here. But the groundwork has to be put in place for it be achieved. Speaking after the Bahrain victory, he said, “Hopefully in 10 years, people will look back on this game and this group of players and say this is where it started.”
Here’s hoping that he is right and the wonderful scenes on Tuesday were not just a one-off. If White, and the CTFA, can deliver, then the whole of Taiwan, not just its soccer fans, would be the beneficiaries.