National soccer team captain Chen Po-liang will take his game to China’s top tier next year, after signing a contract to play for Shanghai Shenhua next season.
At 25, Chen has made history by becoming the first Taiwan-born professional soccer player to join the top division across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese Super League, which has 16 clubs and seasons running from March to November.
According to Chinese media, the star midfielder last week inked a two-year deal with Shanghai Shenhua worth 60,000 yuan (US$99,000) per year. Some of the reports said that the deal included a signing-on bonus of 100,000 yuan and a stipulation that Chen would get a pay raise in his second season at the club.
It is a step up for the Greater Kaohsiung native, as he has been playing in China’s second tier with Shenzhen Ruby for the past two seasons, during which he appeared in 53 matches, scoring nine goals.
“The first year will be very important. I will dedicate all my effort to adjusting to this new team and working hard to demonstrate what I can capable of. I am endeavoring to make the Chinese Super League a stage to showcase the power of Taiwanese soccer,” Chen said about the greater media exposure he will have after joining the Shanghai side.
Due to his sunny disposition and ability to orchestrate Shenzhen’s attacks from midfield, Chinese soccer fans have dubbed Chen “Taiwan’s Zinedine Zidane.”
The tag linking Chen to Zidane, the former Juventus and Real Madrid legend and 1998 FIFA World Cup winner with France, may sound far-fetched to some, but it is based on a genuine French connection.
Chen is one of the proteges of Shenzhen Ruby’s head coach Philippe Troussier of France and he was introduced to the club by another Frenchman, David Camhi, one of Troussier’s coaches.
Chen has steadily improved in the past two seasons under Troussier, who coached Japan at the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals and to victory at the 2000 AFC Asian Cup.
Troussier is known as the “White Witch Doctor” for his past successes with African teams, including Ivorian side Asec Abidjan, as well as the national teams of Nigeria, South Africa and Burkina Faso.
“Chen Po-liang was very good, he is very good, he will be one of the best players in China because he’s a playmaker ... They [China] don’t produce playmakers,” Camhi told the Taipei Times in an interview in December 2011, just after he enlisted Chen to train with Shenzhen.
Under the French coaches, the Taiwanese athlete has increasingly made the starting lineup for Shenzhen and he became Troussier’s main midfield playmaker in most league matches last season.
The rise in Chen’s stock is evident in the three Chinese Super League clubs who tried to sign him for the coming season. Besides Shanghai Shenhua, the other two clubs who tried to attract the midfielder were Guizhou Renhe and the newly promoted Henan Jianye, who won the second-tier title last season.
“My feeling was that Shanghai Shenhua were the most sincere during the negotiations. Also, Shanghai is closer to Taiwan and I heard my new teammates have good chemistry playing together. That is why I chose to sign with Shenhua,” Chen said.
Regarding the development of the sport at home, the 25-year-old said the Chinese Taipei Football Association is in need of reform.
“If nothing changes, us players cannot do much to improve things back home. It is most important to have firm foundations for the game. I really hope Taiwan can build up soccer from the grassroots level and that we can then gradually improve the level of the game from there,” Chen said. “We have lots of good players in Taiwan, but they do not have a stage on which to showcase their talent. I was lucky, someone decided to give me a chance.”
The 180cm midfielder’s previous clubs include Taipower in Taiwan’s soccer league and also Hong Kong’s TSW Pegasus. He was appointed skipper of the Taiwan national team in August 2009, becoming the side’s youngest-ever captain.
Although Chen is the first Taiwan-born professional to play in China’s top division, he is not the first Taiwan international to do so.
That honor goes to Xavier Chen, the Belgian-born player who is currently with Guizhou Renhe. The fullback appeared in 25 games for Renhe last season, scoring once.
Xavier Chen has a Taiwanese father and a French mother. He began his career with RSC Anderlecht’s junior team, before joining the Belgian top tier and then going to China.
In his international debut, the fullback scored the winning goal for Taiwan in their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification match against Malaysia on July 3, 2011 in front of a record-breaking 16,768 spectators at the Taipei Municipal Stadium.