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China’s Other Team…

Chen Po-Liang salutes Taiwanese football fans

Tom Lewis returns to give a historical angle on Taiwanese football’s recent progress

Look back at football’s history books and you see some oddities, nations now disregarded that were once on the cusp of something special. The Dutch East Indies, Indonesia these days, once went to a World Cup. Barcelona’s top goalscorer, pre-Messi, played for the Philippines. And, if you look back at the early Asian Cups and Games tournaments, you’ll see one of the big names, and occasional champions, was Taiwan.

This team was, of course, representing the Republic of China rather than just the island. All the players were from Hong Kong, and a good many had fled from the mainland after 1949. It meant Taiwan was able to field a pretty powerful line-up for a couple of decades but, as the generations changed and younger players came to identify more closely with Hong Kong rather than a place they’d likely never visited, Taiwanese football retreated from sight.

There were two reasons. The first, of course, is that football is very much a minority pastime. A quick history lesson; Taiwan hadn’t been integrated into the Chinese body politic until the Qing Dynasty and, even then, was just a wild and rebellious sort of place. In 1895, the Japanese wrested control and remained in charge till 1945. Social changes in Taiwan therefore mirrored what was happening in Japan which, in sporting terms, meant baseball became the pastime of choice. After only four years of direct rule from Beijing following World War II, the island moved into America’s sphere of influence, reinforcing baseball’s supremacy. Taiwan’s most important sportspeople are usually baseball players, often recruited by Japanese clubs, occasionally by the Major Leagues. Football barely registers.

Then there was politics. Beijing’s assertiveness spilled over into the sporting sphere and suddenly athletes from the island found themselves out in the cold. FIFA still recognised the local football authorities but they were cast adrift with Israel and the islands of Oceania in the Group, if not of Death, then at least of unfeasibly long air travel. There was no interest in watching the team get battered by all-comers either. In the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, Taiwan played all their matches away, gamely agreeing to fulfil double headers in Israel, Australia and New Zealand. They scored once, and conceded at least five goals every time.

They were allowed back by the linguistic sleight of hand that is Chinese Taipei. A compromise flag, a compromise anthem, but it means Taiwanese sportspeople can travel and compete unhindered by politics. In 1989, they returned to the AFC after a fifteen year absence.

Chinese Taipei had no players from Hong Kong and were now one of Asia’s little fish. There’s quite a large shoal of these and it was doing no-one any good to leave them at the mercy of larger predators in World and Asian Cup qualifiers so, from 2004, the AFC embraced pre-qualifying. For at least one fixture, even the smallest nation had the chance of a win.

This was why I found myself in Taipei in July 2011. The AFC pre-qualifiers were the first matches on the road to South Africa 2014 and Chinese Taipei had been drawn against Malaysia. The first leg in Kuala Lumpur had been edged 2-1 by the home team in front of 45,000, a crowd significantly larger than many of the Taiwanese had ever experienced, with the return four days later. A decent attendance was guaranteed by the distribution of free tickets, and the press and TV managed to drag themselves away from covering Lady Gaga’s tour for long enough to drum up further interest.

The squad was formed of players from the local assortment of university and company teams. Taiwan doesn’t really do professional sport beyond a slightly dodgy baseball league but there was one player from the island who had gone on to (marginally) greater things. The 22 year-old captain and attacking midfielder, Chen Po-liang, had been a high school standout. He’d just spent half the season with TSW Pegasus in Hong Kong and returned to lead Taipower to the AFC President’s Cup. This was Asia’s third tier club tournament so didn’t show up on many people’s radar but it was the first, and still only, international trophy won by a Taiwanese club.

But he wasn’t the centre of attention. A couple of years previously, a CTFA press official had got hold of the latest FIFA video game and scrolled through the names looking to stock his squad. In this way, he came across Xavier Chen, right-back at Mechelen in Belgium. Chen is the most common surname in Taiwan and he got to thinking whether this player, from a good European league, had any connection to the island.

It transpired the answer was yes. Xavier Chen’s grandfather was a Republic of China diplomat and his father had settled in Brussels, so feelers were put out. Chen, of course, harboured a desire to represent Belgium having captained them at U19 level, but that had been a decade previously. It was becoming apparent they had a remarkable new generation of De Bruynes, Hazards and Lukakus so, when the call came from the other side of the world, his interest was piqued. In mid-2010 he visited the island, saw his relatives and accepted the offer of citizenship. Red tape being what it is, he hadn’t been given clearance to play in the first leg but was now ready to make his debut.

Xavier Chen’s arrival created something of a media storm by Taiwanese football standards. He was still uncertain when speaking Chinese so preferred communicating in French or English, and he was quite unfamiliar with his teammates. However, as the only top-level footballer in the squad he was well aware what was expected. 

Seventeen thousand fans turned up at the Municipal Stadium bringing with them a seas of flags, though the only Chinese Taipei example was that used for the anthems. A goal down after the first leg, the Taiwanese conceded first, equalised on the half-hour, and then let in another five minutes before the break.

And then it started raining penalties. The first was a minute before half-time, despatched by Chen Po-liang. Midway through the second half, Chinese Taipei was awarded another. Chen Po-liang stepped up again, the opportunity to level the scores on aggregate rather too high in his thoughts. He went for placement over power, achieved neither and the keeper made an easy save. 

Chen Po-liang was distraught so, when yet another spot-kick was given with a quarter of an hour to go, he shied away from taking it. Animated discussions ensued on the Taiwanese bench and, after a while, Xavier Chen wandered up, ball in hand, to remind them time was passing. One of the coaches saw him and waved him off, so he shrugged his shoulders, trotted back to the goal area, and stuck the ball in the top corner.

Level on aggregate but behind on away goals, the home team threw what they could at their opponents but to no avail. At the final whistle Chen Po-liang collapsed in tears onto the nearest shoulder (which happened to belong to your correspondent), the Malaysians expressed annoyance at having conceded three penalties (they all looked decent shouts, though to have that many awarded can raise red flags in suspicious minds) and the general consensus was it had been the best night of football Taipei had ever seen.

At this point, the downside of pre-qualifying became apparent as the Taiwanese had no more worthwhile fixtures in the calendar. It was over three years before they played in Taipei again, a friendly against Cambodia which they lost. There was the thought they might bring Mechelen over for a prestige friendly but it came to naught.

Having said that, there have been some positives which I like to think stemmed from that night. Xavier Chen became only the first of a number of players with Taiwanese heritage who have now represented the island. The trend became even more marked when Gary White became head coach and the likes of Yaki Yen, Tim Chow and Will Donkin now feature in the squad. Xavier Chen was persuaded to return and was part of Chinese Taipei’s sensational comeback win over Bahrain in October 2017. Check out the 90th minute equaliser, Xavier Chen’s pass to Chen Po-liang. It’s a thing of beauty.

And the other big plus is that clubs on the Chinese mainland started paying attention to Taiwanese talent which, of course, counts as domestic. Xavier Chen spent three lucrative seasons with Guizhou Renhe. Taiwan-born players like Wen Chih-hao, Chen Hao-wei and Ko Yu-ting were signed up. Best of all, Chen Po-liang quickly found himself in demand. He moved to Shenzhen in 2012, and has since played for Shanghai Shenhua, Zhejiang Greentown and Changchun Yatai. Indeed, he scored for Yatai in the 3-0 win over Chengdu in November which confirmed their promotion back to the top flight.

I think that counts as a happy ending.

Tom Lewis has worked in television for longer than he'd care to remember and, though his first love is football, has filmed all sorts of sports in over forty countries. He first saw the Chinese national team in 1979, arrived in Shanghai just in time to watch them clinch the 1983 National Games title and has been following the ups and, mostly, downs of football in the PRC ever since. Supports Sichuan Quanxing.

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