Sat, May 27, 2006 - Page 16 News List

More than a game of two halves

The national men's football team has an abysmal competition record. The current training system needs to be overhauled if Taiwan wants to stand proud in the international sports arena, enthusiasts of the 'beautiful game' say

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Coach Fatih Kale rises most Sundays at 6am to cook lunch for the Shih-Chih Soccer Club (SCSC). The team of 10 to 12-year-old boys practices once a week, but last year won 29 games out of thirty played and in the losing game was beaten by national champion Chiao-ai Elementary School (橋愛) of Taoyuan by one goal.

But his team, which plays futsal or five-a-side soccer, was not the second-ranked team in its age group in Taiwan last year. That honor went to a team from Pingtung that SCSC beat 3-0. As a club team, SCSC is not recognized by the Chinese Taipei Football Association (中華台北足球協會) and can only play in unofficial tournaments.

For Kale, the 40-year-old owner of a pet supply business who was born in Turkey and moved here in 1991, this situation symbolizes what is wrong with soccer in Taiwan. His players are not particularly athletic or physically imposing for their age, but they consistently beat teams that are because he teaches them tactics and because they love the sport.

"With school teams, the sport selects the players, and these are often children that come from poor families or have troubled backgrounds," he said. "They practice six hours a day on school days, and on weekends from nine in the morning until seven, eight, or nine o'clock" at night. "When they play us, they don't want to see the ball anymore."

"Right now, they just kick the ball and run after it," he said of his competitors. "If you teach these kids a little bit of technical play, we wouldn't stand a chance because they're physically better."

Taiwan needs more teams like SCSC if it hopes to ever redeem its dismal record in international football competitions. Inter-national football's governing body FIFA ranks the current national team 156th out of 205 worldwide, below those of several microstates whose entire populations would fit inside Taipei's City Square.

Local fans like to talk about Taiwan's two Asian Games championships, but that was half a century ago and the players all came from Hong Kong. Taiwan's recent record in the "beautiful game" has been anything but. The national team yielded two-dozen goals in six recent World Cup qualifying matches. In a March qualifier for the 2007 Asian Cup, it lost 4-0 at Taipei's Zhongshan Soccer Stadium (中山足球場) to lowly Syria. (The women's team has been more successful in recent decades and currently ranks 25th, one slot above Mexico.)

The men's ranking "is unacceptable, considering all the effort and money we put in," said Michael Huang (黃啟煌), former holder of Taiwan's record in shot put and currently deputy minister at the National Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (行政院體育委員會). He agrees that the system needs to be over-hauled. "We train the younger kids too hard," he said. "As they get older they do not have the ambition to improve."

Huang said club sports don't exist on a meaningful level in Taiwan because students don't have time and because most parents don't want their children playing sports after school. Those who compete often do so only to get into a good high school or university. "We need to change that phenomenon and it's very tough," he said. "In thousands of years of Chinese culture, studying has been the only way to be successful."

He added that his agency spends roughly one-third of its annual budget on subsidizing national teams and successful university squads. This includes the NT$260 million it pays towards the operating costs of teams that compete in the Olympic or Asian Games, including the Chinese Taipei Football Association. It also sponsors baseball programming on public television to the tune of NT$13 million each year so that people who can't afford cable can watch Taiwanese athletes play baseball overseas.

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