Taiwan announces major plans to become a football power in Asia

Lu Kun-Shan, President of Taiwan's Chinese Taipei Football Association, has announced an ambititious football program for the island nation which includes the formation of a professional league by 2018 and a FIFA top 100 ranking by 2019.

Lu also spoke of his ambition for his country to reach the World Cup finals by 2038, and expects the Asian Football Confederation's Vision Asia program to be instrumental in reaching its targets.

CTFA was founded as the China Football Association in 1924 and relocated to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Affiliated with FIFA in 1932 as China, it rejoined FIFA in 1954, first under the name Taiwan, then Republic of China, and later Chinese Taipei.

The Association's best result in international competition was finishing third in the AFC Asian Cup in 1960, although its highest FIFA ranking was in 2006 when it reached 144.

Lu admitted that part of his task was to make football the most popular sport in the country. “The biggest challenge the CTFA is facing is how to encourage families to have their children play football and persuade the government to input more resources in football development," he told the AFC website.

With a FIFA ranking of 160 for the men and 36 for women, Taiwan has but seven men’s and six women’s football teams - none of which are professional. “Only two men’s teams are long-term supported by the commercial enterprise while the others are in universities or are society clubs. The total population is 23 million in [Taiwan] and we have about 460,000 players, 12,000 of whom are registered players,” he said.

Football development may be accelerated with the passage of Taiwan's Sports Industry Development Act through which corporations that hire “excellent athletes” will be compensated by the government for up to 30% of the athlete’s salary for up to five years.

“So far, athletes have had very limited career opportunities after they retire. Either they become physical education teachers and coaches or they become government employees,” Sports Affairs Council Minister Tai Hsia-ling said.

According to Shelley Shan in the Taipei Times, Minister Tai defined "excellent athletes” as those who represented the nation at major international events, such as the Olympics or the Asian Games. For athletes who cannot compete in the Olympics or the Asian Games, such as the nation’s soccer team, Tai said the matter would require further discussions among sports researchers, sporting associations and corporations.

The minister also said the act would increase demand for sports and offer incentives for corporations to sponsor sporting events. “Whatever corporations spent on athletes, games, sports facilities or buying tickets for disadvantaged groups can be listed as operating costs when they file their taxes. There is no cap on how much they can spend either,” Tai said. “You won’t get the same privilege if you buy tickets to see a music concert or for the Flora Expo.”

Separately, a Belgium-born professional football player, who was born to a Taiwanese father and French mother, has received his Republic of China documentation to make him officially eligible to represent Taiwan in the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Xavier Chen, 27, who has played for KV Mechelen in the Belgian League since 2007, will represent Taiwan in future international matches, including two qualifying matches against Malaysia on 29 June and 3 July.

The University of Brussels law school graduate was "discovered accidentally" in 2009 by  Ginola Chen, the Chinese Taipei Football Association's public relations director, who  found the name "Xavier Chen" when he was playing an online FIFA football game. "When he found out Chen was the real thing," Kendra Lin of CNA reported, "the association recruited Chen to the national side, and the player finally agreed last year."

Chen had aspirations to play for Belgium's national team, but his grandfather changed his mind. "Grandpa worked hard for his country for many years. It was an honor. I am also Taiwanese, so I hope I can be part of the Chinese Taipei football team to win glory for the nation," Chen said.

The association and Chen have reportedly agreed that he will be paid 1,000 Euros for each appearance, "a pittance compared with his annual income of about 700,000 Euros".