Ask any kid from Tipperary to Tokyo who Zinedine Zidane, Pele and Michael Owen are and they're practically guaranteed to know. Pose the same question to kids in Taipei, however, and there's a strong chance that you'll be met with shrugs of indifference and vacant stares. After all, in Taiwan, the common cold is much more of a conversation starter than "football fever."
Currently, only a handful of public schools encourage students to play "the beautiful game," and, more often than not, such classes cover little but the fundamentals. Well-organized classes offering in-depth studies of the game's intricacies and providing lessons in soccer history are few and far between.
All that changed in July of this year, however, when five members of the Taipei-based expat soccer team The Animals established the Master Football Academy (MFA), Taiwan's first and only foreign-managed private soccer school for local children. Although at present only based in Taipei, MFA founders hope that within a few years the soccer academy will have branches nationwide.
The MFA not only aims to teach local kids the basics of soccer, but also gives them a chance to better understand soccer's many nuances. By teaching everything from the offside rule to correct on-field etiquette, the MFA is trying to achieve something that has never been attempted on such a level in Taiwan before.
"Basically, there's no structure to kids' football in Taiwan," said MFA head coach, Daniel Calvert. "Some schools have teams, but there's no one [group] managing it, which makes [soccer] very disorganized," he said.
To bring order to Taiwan's youth soccer scene, the five friends invested NT$1.5million in the academy. The investment was in turn divided up and used to purchase equipment, set up a Web site and, more importantly, to research methods and concepts used to teach children soccer in the UK.
Before it opened for business this summer, Calvert returned to his native England. There he put himself through the Football Association's -- the UK soccer governing body -- rigorous coaching program and visited several soccer schools run by professional teams to see how they set about transforming their students into skilled players.
"I went to Leicester City and Peterborough United to see their academies and to talk to the staff about ideas and coaching methods and I also spoke with the [Football Association]," he said. "Along with giving ideas about drills, they also [stressed] the importance of motivation and positive feedback."
To date, the academy has between 80 and 90 children aged between 4 and 12 years old on its books and holds classes on Saturdays and Sundays in Taipei's Neihu and Da-an districts. Classes run between one and two hours and at each session coaching staff teach individual skills and team-play techniques.
The academy provides each student with a specially designed kit and allows each child to pick his own number. The most popular number is 7, that of England international player David Beckham.
"It's a bit difficult to get a kit to fit a 4-year-old, but do we manage to make everyone feel like they belong to a team," said the MFA's Michael Chandler.
To make learning fun and to provide the students with incentives, the MFA's specially devised program is divided into two main areas. The "Trick Cap Scheme" focuses on individual skills and techniques and teaches students how to juggle, catch and raise the ball with their feet.