Few would, perhaps, associate football with minnows like Chinese Taipei, where basketball and baseball remain the land’s dominant sports. But the islanders' passion for the beautiful game has been rekindled recently by their spirited aggregate victory against Brunei Darussalam in Asia's first round of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
The team, captained by Chen Po-Liang, reversed their 1-0 loss at home with a 2-1 away win to seal passage through to the next stage, where they will join the other 39 teams battling for a place for the final qualifying round, which will also serve as qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. It marks only the second time for Chinese Taipei to progress beyond the opening round, having thrashed Macau 6-1 in the same stage on the road to Germany 2006.
"The victory provides a timely boost for us," the 26-year-old forward told FIFA.com. "It helps attract growing attention and support from people of all walks of life. Particularly, it gives us the chance of playing competitive international matches."
Chinese Taipei will learn the hurdles they must overcome when the second round draw takes place next Tuesday, where the 40 participants are divided into eight groups of five. But with their fervent supporters harbouring hopes of an additional breakthrough, Chen has opted to downplay their prospects as he has fixed sights on making improvement.
"Realistically, we have entered an era of development," said the skipper, who is plying his trade with Chinese Super League side Hangzhou Greentown. "So, we should focus our attention on making consistent progress instead of seeking results. The authorities should create long-term plans and investors provide steady support if we are to maintain this momentum."
Few would argue against Chen, who is widely considered to be the best footballer Chinese Taipei has ever seen. Chen became intrigued by football when his father, a big baseball fan, was driving him to the diamond to see the game played professionally. "On our road to the baseball game we saw a group of kids play football," Chen recalled. "Then I suddenly thought this is the fun sport. I have played football ever since."
The then talented teenager quickly made progress and he earned a trial with Yokohama F. Marinos in 2006. Although he failed to ink a deal with the J League side, this trip to Japan cemented his faith in pursuing a career in football. It took him just a few more years to realise his dreams when he became the youngest Chinese Taipei captain in August of 2009 at the age of 21 years and 4 days. "I wasn't aware of this until my coach told me," Chen said humbly. "Then I asked myself: is this real? How could such an honour fall on to me? But I quickly became aware that the captaincy role meant greater responsibility."
Chen would shine through Chinese Taipei's last attempt for Brazil 2014 as they came close to shocking Malaysia in what he has labeled as his most memorable showings. He pulled one back in their opening 2-1 loss away, before earning a pair of penalties as they pulled off a surprising 3-2 home win. The results saw Chinese Taipei drew the aggregate scoreline level on 3-3 although it was the Malaysians that progressed on away goals.
"It was the first time for us to play in front of over 60,000 fans in Malaysia," Chen reflected. "And our home match attracted a record crowd. Malaysia were a much stronger opponent than us but we proved we are capable of springing a surprise."
The in-form goal-scorer became the first professional player from Chinese Taipei when he was signed by Hong Kong's TSW Pegasus in 2011. His talents did not go unnoticed by Philippe Troussier, who recruited him into Chinese First Division side Shenzhen the following year. Chen made his move to Shanghai Shenhua last season, before reunifying with the Frenchman at Hangzhou for the start of the current campaign.
"It was my luck of having the chance of playing under such a great manager," Chen said of the former South Africa and Japan boss. "I like his style, which is maintaining possession and playing the passing game. Back at home, we were just used to the long-ball tactics."
With Chen the trail-blazer, more players from Chinese Taipei have followed his steps in seeking development in the mainland over recent years. As a result, as many as eight players are strutting their stuff in different divisions of Chinese football, three of whom compete in the top flight, making the current Chinese Taipei squad the strongest in history.
"I am hoping to do my captaincy job well as my team can go further (in the second round) in the World Cup qualifying." Chen said confidently, before turning his focus to what seems to be a promising season. "At the club level, I hope I can open my account soon with Hangzhou and provide my team-mates with more support."