Could Taiwan really be on the brink of making a mark in world football? Their FIFA ranking suggests not but that's far from the whole story - can football become the national sport?
They are among the perennial whipping boys of world football, lying a lowly 160th in the Fifa world rankings. Taiwan – or for the politically motivated purposes of international competition, Chinese Taipei – have a sorry history in the annals of the game.
But a sliver of hope for football in a country more fascinated by baseball and basketball has emerged in the shape of a young native plying his trade in Spain. He is Victor Chou Hsieh of second tier outfit UD Salamanca, the 19-year-old son of Taiwanese parents who emigrated to Spain, where he was born in the capital, Madrid.
And the youngster – a youth player believed to be on the fringes of a breakthrough into the ranks of the Salamanca first-team squad – comes with the added bonus of operating anywhere across defence, which critics identify as the position where Taiwan is at its weakest.
Those close to the game in Taiwan say there are high hopes he can be a lynchpin in the side and attract hitherto unknown interest in football among an untapped reservoir of potential support for the beautiful game there.
Tsai Chang-min is one convinced of his potential. The former head coach of Taiwan's Olympic team told local media he sees him as a leader both at the back and in midfield in the national side. Chou himself hopes he can spark development of football in his homeland, principally through regular participation in Taiwan's international matches and, perhaps most importantly in a results-driven business, winning more matches.
Such success, though, would be no mean feat given Taiwan's less than stellar record – even at Asian continental level. Taiwan have never come anywhere near winning the Asian Cup, the continent's top honour at international level, nor have they been to a World Cup.
The 23 million populace country is not helped by the dwarfing influence of its big brother and political foe China, which claims sovereignty over the island country – even competing for ethnic Chinese players living or born overseas who have ties to Taiwan.
But in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge, started in 2006 for emerging football nations who occupy the designated third tier of national associations in Asian football, they have been equally ineffective.
This year was no different – their participation extinguished at the groups stages.
There was a winning start when their first two fixtures against Laos in February -- both qualifiers for the tournament -- ended in a 5-2 home win, then a 1-1 draw away. But they were then been brought back to terra firma with all-too-familiar defeats in the groups stages in March: away to India (3-0), at home to Turkmenistan (2-0), then away in Pakistan (2-0).
Some hope was extracted from a narrow first-leg defeat (1-0) away to Jordan in a preliminary qualifier for the London Olympics. With Victor in their ranks for the home leg for the first time, aligned to a bolstered home crowd and chilly conditions to which the Jordanians are not accustomed, it was hoped they would have an edge. Come the return, though, normal service was restored, and Jordan, at the time ranked 69 places above Taiwan, triumphed with a 2-0 victory.
Next up on the major stage is Malaysia in Asian World Cup qualifying competition. Form says they should lose. Malaysia, while minnows themselves, had a fantastic end to 2010 by winning the AFF Cup, Southeast Asia's top prize. Yet, they are only 17 places ahead of Taiwan in the Fifa rankings.
Away from the doom and gloom of thumping reminders of their place in the echelons of world football, spirits have also been raised by a couple of other nuggets of hope.
The progress of the national team's 22-year-old captain and midfielder Chen Po-lian has peaked interest. He recently moved from Taiwanese league champions Taipower to the relatively bigger platform of TSW Pegasus in Hong Kong, becoming only the second Taiwanese player to play overseas.
Then there was the discovery of Xavier Chen, a 27-year-old Belgian-Taiwanese plying his trade with Belgian cracks KV Mechelen. His eligibility – his father is from Taiwan – was reportedly discovered by a Chinese Taipei Football Association official while he was playing an online Fifa soccer game. With rivals China also interested, though, his commitment to the Taiwanese cause remains uncertain.
But the biggest challenge to football in Taiwan, like in other East Asian countries, is breaking the stranglehold over sports fans held by baseball and basketball. In the Taiwanese case, the key weakness is a lack of development and investment in what, for all intents and purposes, is a semi-professional set-up at the highest level.
In the short-term, there is the eminently achievable target, if recent estimations over the improved quality of the squad are as assured as the predictions, of surpassing their highest ever world ranking of 144th.
Beyond that, until greater interest in the game is attracted – they may first require serious commitment to grassroots and league set-up development – steadying the ship is likely the best that can be hoped for.
Long-term, even minorly successful careers of internationalists such as Victor in Spain could be the trigger to diverting eyes away from ball pens and basketball hoops. Perhaps then a climb past the next rung of countries will be possible – a field that includes, of course, Malaysia, the team standing between Taiwan and a longer shot at World Cup qualification.