FEATURE/As World Cup proceeds, Taiwan's players, coaches hoping for better at home
By William Yen, CNA staff reporter
The quadrennial FIFA World Cup is one of the world's most watched sports events, including in Taiwan, where many fans are staying up late to catch the games live from Qatar.
Unlike in many other countries, however, Taiwanese fans have never seen their national men's team take part in a World Cup, and the women's national team has only achieved the feat once, in 1991, when Taiwan reached the quarterfinals.
Taiwan's women's team still has a chance to qualify for the 2023 Women's World Cup, but the men's team has never excelled internationally, ranking no higher historically than 121st in May 2018. It is currently ranked 157th.
This lack of success at the global level is not surprising, given that baseball and basketball are far more popular and accessible in Taiwan than soccer, and offer many more opportunities for participation, both recreationally and in organized groupings.
With the World Cup in progress, CNA talked to members of Taiwan's own national soccer teams for their insight on ways they think the country's domestic soccer environment can be improved to help the sport grow at home, even with the many inherent barriers that exist.
Establishing a professional league
"First, we need to set up a professional soccer league. Baseball and basketball both have professional leagues, and you can see they are more popular and have bigger crowds at the games," said Wu Chun-ching (吳俊青), the captain of Taiwan's national men's soccer team.
The seven-team Taiwan Football Premier League, played annually from March to November, is a semi-professional league that lags far behind basketball's T1 LEAGUE and P. LEAGUE+ and baseball's Chinese Professional Baseball League in attention and interest.
Without a professional soccer league, young soccer players are less likely to continue with the sport, said Wu, who worries that Taiwan has many young players under 12 who are really talented but may give up the sport after junior high to focus on other interests.
The fastest way to give young talented players an incentive to keep playing is to have a professional league because they can see a future in the sport after graduating, Wu said.
"If we can help these children be willing to continue with the sport, soccer in Taiwan will only get better and better," Wu said.
Establishing a professional league is more than just gathering the country's top teams, however; it also needs to be backed with physical and organizational structures and facilities, according to Wu.
To create a professional league, for example, Taiwan needs more professional soccer pitches that are suitable for competition, Wu said, because many of the fields currently available are practice pitches.
Having more fields to play on would also benefit local sports clubs, which are limited by their access to venues to stage matches, Wu said.
Soccer culture, Women's World Cup
Wang Hsiang-huei (王湘惠), the captain of Taiwan's national women's soccer team, said she agreed with the need to bolster physical infrastructure but also hoped Taiwan's soccer community could have more of an international outreach, especially with "places like Europe where they have a deep soccer culture we can learn from."
"At the same time, we can start creating our own soccer culture," Wang said.
Wang's team will be one of 10 entered in a playoff tournament in New Zealand in February to vie for the final three qualification spots for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup.
The team will have to defeat Paraguay and then the winner of Papua New Guinea and Panama to secure a World Cup berth.
"This is very important for Taiwan," Wang said. "I really hope we will make use of this opportunity and qualify for the World Cup. It's not just important for women's soccer but also great encouragement for younger generations."
A centralized training center
Yen Shih-kai (顏士凱), the head coach of the national women's soccer team, said a big step forward would be to have a dedicated national training center for the sport.
"We train at any suitable location, and it kind of feels like we're homeless," he said.
A national-level soccer training center would allow players to live together as they train and save them travel time while reducing what Yen called the considerable waste of "administrative resources."
"For example, we can't always live in the same place where we train, so I have to spend a lot of time looking for places to stay (for my players) or for things like food and traffic (logistics), because the hotel will most likely not be next to the training pitch."
He also felt holding more matches at home could have a big impact on the sport's growth.
"Our players need to perform well for Taiwanese fans to see. It's not easy for local fans to go overseas to watch our games, so to have international matches played in Taiwan is beneficial for both fans and the players," Yen said.
Due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, no international team has visited Taiwan in close to three years, Yen said, but he hoped overseas teams will be willing to play friendlies in Taiwan as COVID restrictions ease.
In the meantime, however, he felt the current World Cup is keeping the Taiwanese passion for soccer alive and hoped that television, streaming platforms, and the media would continue to provide resources for fans, Yen said.
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