World Cup can help boost football environment: coach (series3/3)
By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter
As the quadrennial FIFA World Cup captivates audiences across the globe, Taiwan is no exception to the month-long passion for football, with thousands of people staying up all night to watch the games in Russia live.
It is nothing new for Taiwanese to be enamored with the World Cup every four year, but something is different this time. Indeed, Taiwan, long considered a soccer dessert, has begun to take a greater interest in the world's most popular sport.
With Taiwan's national team performing better at international competitions over the past year or two, more Taiwanese have begun to pay attention.
Three years ago, the country was ranked 182 out of 211 FIFA member associations. However, in the latest rankings released in June, Taiwan, competing under the name Chinese Taipei, jumped to No. 123 in the world.
The main reason for this improvement in just two years is the squad's head coach Gary White.
Since signing a contract with the Chinese Taipei Football Association (CTFA) in Sept. 2017, the English coach has led the team to six consecutive home wins.
The former coach of British Virgin Islands, Barbados and Guam, who guided each team to their highest-ever FIFA ranking, pledged to get Taiwan into the FIFA top 100 in two years.
Speaking to CNA during an exclusive interview on July 4, 44-year-old White said Taiwan must seize on the interest generated by the ongoing World Cup to undertake some fundamental reforms if the government is sincere about wanting to create a better football environment.
"What we need now is the government, we need the sports minister, we need everybody who is talking a good game, to actually do something (to make Taiwan's soccer environment better)," White said.
White said he did see Taiwan's government making progress in this area but more fundamental changes need to be made.
For a start, he found it strange that many Taiwanese cannot even watch live World Cup games on local regular TV networks or cable television.
Despite the fact that the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is being watched by 3.4 billion people across the world, all 64 matches can only be watched on the ELTA (愛爾達電視) sports channel provided through the Chunghwa Telecom MOD service, with average daily viewing figures of 850,000.
Only after the first 32 FIFA World Cup matches had been played were Taiwanese viewers finally able to tune into the competition at the quarter-final stage on the Chinese Television System (CTS, 華視) on channel 12, starting June 30.
White said he was told before coming to coach Team Taiwan, that the country is a soccer dessert.
"I can see why, you can't even watch World Cup on a normal TV," he said.
Make it more accessible
If the government is serious about promoting football, then it should make games more easily accessible, he noted.
The ongoing World Cup offers momentum to promote the sport, "you've got to jump on it right now," White said.
He pointed out that Taiwan's national team does not even have a regular training ground.
"It is an absolute miracle we beat other national teams. If we get the environment, we will fly up the FIFA rankings," he said.
Making Taiwan's football more competitive will also give the country's much-needed international visibility, he stressed.
Asked for a more concrete strategy to improve Team Taiwan's international competitiveness, the coach cited the impressive performances by Japan and South Korea in the World Cup.
White said the two neighboring countries have well-developed professional leagues with more than 90 pro teams in total. Taiwan, has 18 amateur teams.
"Of course they are going to have success."
The British coach said he and his coaching staff have proven that with sufficient training and support, local players can be as good as anywhere else in the world.
"The problems we have here is they play local football, in a mostly amateur environment. We are able to bring them (Taiwanese players) up, but when they go back to their club, they go back here. It is constantly yoyoing back and forth," he noted.
A national pro team
White said the current soccer environment in Taiwan is not yet ready for a professional league, but it is ready for a professional team.
He proposed that local authorities form a local all-star team featuring 30 young Taiwan-native players with potential.
He and his coaching team will be responsible for training the team of 30 players 24/7 in a professional environment and regularly send them overseas to compete in neighboring professional leagues in Japan, South Korea, China or Hong Kong so that they can stay competitive.
Once an international event is near, White said CTFA only needs to recruit top Taiwanese soccer players playing overseas and combine them with the local all-star team, then there is a team ready to play.
This approach will also give young Taiwanese players a pathway to become professionals or Taiwan will keep losing talent because up and coming players have no where to go after graduating from college.
"If we do this today, we will qualify to the East Asian Cup in November," White pledged.
Next: FIFA top 100
With his one-year-contract ending in September, White disclosed that he is in talks about a possible extension with CTFA, but with upcoming elections for CTFA top management posts, White said he is unsure about his future in Taiwan.
"As far as I am concerned, I am here for the long-term but it all depends on politics," he said.
He said he has proven that Taiwan football can work and "you don't want to change if something is working."
"If you take us (coaching team) out of the equation the reality is football (in Taiwan) will go back 10 years. We moved on more in eight months than the past 50 years," he said.
"The goal is the top 100, the other goal is to win major competitions. I know how to do it and I am doing it," he concluded.
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