Football. Global and all encompassing, especially in the far east, right? Maybe not. Here's Rob Langham on a country not quite so obsessed with all things Premier League.
If hosting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is part of FIFA’s master plan to colonize the world completely; there remain a few notable redoubts to conquer. The sport’s secondary importance in the US and Australia is a subject of much distraction but what of those smaller countries that have failed unequivocally to adopt the game?
A trip to Cuba a couple of years back revealed complete disinterest, Venezuelans sigh, and Sri Lankans become impatient. Often, this lack of love for the beautiful game is due to the prominence of another code and stumbling across Major League Baseball’s flagship clubhouse store on a recent trip to Taipei recalled this theme to my mind.
In order to keep afloat in those post 1949 days, Taiwan needed bankrolling. As US warships prowled the Straits formerly known as the Black Ditch, American political and cultural influence was making its presence felt. In addition, the indigenous population: part descendants of aboriginals, part Han Chinese, were joined by an influx from the mainland. Led by Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang, the eventual aim was reunification, although not by way of socialism. Hence, Taiwan’s national identity became enigmatic, the name Republic of China coming into use officially. This had the hallmarks of a temporary nation.
Political influence on sport became overarching with the allies’ beloved baseball and basketball quickly assuming top dog status. In addition, Taiwan had spent much of the previous century in the orbit of Japan – another country with little keenness for the global game and another that was to experience Americanization in the post war years.
So despite a large population of 23 million, football has had little opportunity to flourish. Wandering the streets of Taipei and Hsinchu recently, I was struck by the absence of Premier League iconography and there was no sign of the outdoor televisions that one sees propped up on bar stools in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. One Arsenal shirt was the sum total of my attempts to spot soccer attire and if the local press do report on the various European leagues, coverage plays second fiddle to Stateside pursuits. Nor is the island based game given much shrift – it was the close season for sure, but locals I interrogated were contemptuous of the home grown variety.
Chinese sabre rattling has allowed Taiwan little room to manoeuvre in international sport. Forced to adopt the grotesque moniker of Chinese Taipei, national team success has been close to zero – the final ignominy coming when their 20,000 capacity Chungshan Soccer Stadium was co-opted for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. Between 1975 and 1989, the Taiwanese were forced out of pan-Asian competition altogether, pressurized into the Oceania zone, Big Brother style. With a FIFA ranking of 153, their 11-0 aggregate defeat to Uzbekistan in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers was just the latest on-field humiliation.
The country’s Olympic squad was even forced to compete in the local Enterprise Football League, an experiment that recalls the Team America experience from 1983. The competition folded in 2009, having dwindled to just four competing teams from 2006 onwards. Crowds were low and the participation of too many clubs from the capital as well as colleges and even high school teams had made for a decided rag bag. The administrators had had enough and instigated the Intercity Football League in 2007.
An attempt to bring football to Taiwan’s regions, this is no J or A League. Initial regulations to lend greater professionalism have been abandoned and the college sides have snuck back in. At the moment, 9 teams make up the numbers, with 6 proceeding to a play-off round each year. Taipower, from the city of Kaohsiung, wrapped up their latest Championship in December and the southerners vie with Taipei’s Tatung FC for honours, just as they did before the reorganization.
But national dominance hasn’t translated to international success. The Asian Football Confederation’s enlightened attempt to bring the sport to countries where football is less developed, the AFC President’s Cup, has seen Taiwanese representatives fail to trouble the prize givers unduly – Yadnarbon FC of Burma are the current Champions.
As China asserts itself still more strongly on the world stage, the prospect of a merger to follow on from last year’s historic trade agreement does hint that reunification could be with us within our lifetimes, even if Beijing has a way to go on the political front. Hence, Taiwan, an almost unparalleled economic success story and an engaging and welcoming place to visit, is likely to go the way of Saarland, Bohemia and South Vietnam and join the ranks of defunct national football teams.
Rob writes (as Lanterne Rouge) for the two unfortunates, one of the best football blogs on t'internet. Go see.