It was a pleasant, windless night for the 1,200-strong crowd sitting on the terraces of the Estádio Campo Desportivo in Macau, as they enjoyed local champions Benfica de Macau’s entertaining comeback at the expenses of Hang Yuan FC. It took an unlikely left-footed effort by Gabonese centre-back Gilchrist Nguema and a brace from Macanese international Carlos Leonel to nullify the game’s other brace, crafted by Chen Ching-hsuan in the first 45 minutes.
Despite his team losing all of the remaining five matches in Group I of the 2018 AFC Cup, the historical significance behind Chen’s performance more than justified his teammates’ jack-knives on the grass on that night in early March, for those were the first two goals ever netted by a Taiwanese side in a major continental tournament.
And yet, looking back at the onset of Hang Yuan, few were there who believed that such an all-time high for Taiwanese football would have had anything to do with the club from New Taipei.
Founded in 2012 as Air Source Development FC, the team initially struggled to keep pace in the top tier, then called the Intercity Football League, and had to go through the qualification rounds more than once in order to preserve their top-flight status. After two consecutive seventh places (out of eight participants), they touched their lowest point in the 2015/16 season, when they finished rock-bottom with zero points.
Then, just like the magnificent, ghostly-white stag from an indigenous Taiwanese tale that, surrounded by a band of hunters on the edge of a lake, saved its life by leaping high into the air, the club came up with an equally unexpected yet effective way to escape the footballing corner it got stuck in.
In 2017, just as the Federation launched a newly-revamped top-flight under the name of Taiwan Football Premier League, Air Source Development changed its name to Hang Yuan, marking the beginning of a close collaboration with Fu Jen Catholic University that would eventually lie at the basis of a rapid rise to prominence.
The rest is recent history, with the new course bearing immediate fruits in the third places reached in 2017, 2018 and 2019, right behind wealthy powerhouses Tatung and Taipower. Surprisingly, neither one of the teams sharing the biggest part of Taiwan’s silverware obtained the licence to participate in the AFC Cup.
Both were a staple at the AFC President’s Cup, Asia’s short-lived third-tier continental cup, but after its suppression in 2014, none of them accessed the AFC Cup despite the slots allocated to Chinese Taipei (as the nation is known in most international sports competitions) since 2016.
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That’s why it took a forward-thinking club like Hang Yuan to finally seize the chance to showcase its footballing ambition on a stage as prestigious as Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League. After an unfortunate, ground-breaking run in 2018, being Taiwan’s sole AFC Cup licence holder won the third-placed team the chance to try again the following year, as well as that of earning their nation’s first-ever point in the competition following a thrilling and rain-drenched 1-1 draw against Tai Po in June 2019.
When asked about their continental feat, Hang Yuan manager Hung Chin-hwai looks more concerned with building for the future than interested in discussing the past, in alignment with his club’s progressive way of thinking: “The participation in the AFC Cup holds great significance for us, and it also proved beneficial for our training methods,” he tells These Football Times.
“The main difference between the AFC Cup and the Premier League lies in the players’ quality and intensity. Performances are very much dependent upon the environment of the tournament you play in. That’s why we must create an advanced environment here for all those who want to play football, and cultivate every sector of this industry: coaches, players, staff and so forth.
“Once you create a good environment, it’s easier to achieve good results, but it’s a long-term plan. There are no secrets behind what we accomplished, and we don’t think we’re a successful club as of now, because there are still so many objectives we want to attain: grass-roots development, social responsibility, youth development, connection with the schools in our neighbourhood.”
A Fu Jen alumnus himself, Hung’s path is representative of the close bond between universities and football in Taiwan. After a successful playing career that saw him join local giants Tatung while still a high school student, representing his nation at under-20 level and triumphing in the highest tier of college football, he decided to split his time between the jobs of physical education teacher and youth football coach, always at Fu Jen, until he finally took the reins of Hang Yuan upon its revamp in 2017.
The connection between the club and one of Taiwan’s finest academic institutions, which allowed Hung to smoothly transition from a student to the first-team coach, is also instrumental to the fostering of local talent. “Now that we’ve been working closely with the university for a while, student-players are more likely to understand the vision behind what we do and the benefits of joining Fu Jen,” he explains. “Moreover, it’s much easier for me to invite potential new players at Fu Jen, and sometimes I may even make them participate in our training sessions so that it’s easier for them to settle into the new environment.”
One of the most interesting products of this very environment is Hang Yuan midfielder Wu Yen-shu, who has no doubts when asked about the perks of ensuring continuity between the academic and footballing careers: “You get more opportunities to gain exposure, as well as a better training environment.”
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Undoubtedly among the most exciting young talents on the Taiwanese football scene, the defensive midfielder, born in 1999, has been nicknamed Kao-hsiao Kuai-wu (The High School Monster), for being a mix of power, breakneck pace and technique since his school days. More focussed on the attacking phase at first, he took advantage of his classy passing to gradually develop into a refined deep-lying playmaker, with the task of recovering the ball and dictating the tempo.
Commenting on how his romance with football started provides the occasion to delve into the different roads a young player can take in Taiwan. “The football scene here is still considered semi-professional, thus it’s challenging for a player to go fully pro at the current state of affairs; the only option is through playing for foreign clubs,” he observs.
“Selection in schools and universities is not the only way to start off a career, though. Nowadays, a lot of kids are joining football clubs in order to hone their skills. Despite this, baseball and basketball remain the most popular sports in the country; perhaps it’s because the games are easier to understand and it’s easier to score points, hence they attract a bigger audience.
“As for me, I started playing football at the age of ten, and for a simple reason. My neighbour, a football coach, always complained that me and my brother were too noisy when we played basketball at home. So he used to bring us to the football field to drain our energy. That’s when I fell in love with this sport.”
Although proudly belonging to a new wave of Taiwanese footballers thoroughly bred by local clubs and universities, Wu’s trial with Japan’s J2 League outfit FC Ryukyu in August 2019 made him aware that his country can still learn a lot from one of Asia’s finest footballing nations: “The biggest difference probably lies in the level of expertise in running a club. They are very well-organised and each member is always focused on improving the team’s performances. Software and hardware get enhanced periodically, and the team always look at long-term goals. Furthermore, they put passion in their job, they don’t just do it for the sake of completing a task.”
Wu’s characteristics convinced national team manager Gary White to call him up as early as 2018, and his successor Louis Lancaster followed suit a year later. They offered him the chance to prove his worth in some friendlies and in the World Cup qualifying rounds. “I feel proud when I play for my country,” he says. “Once I put on the national team jersey, I feel a great sense of honour and responsibility, and I’m truly motivated when I know my family and fans are cheering for me in front of a live game on television.”
In spite of the visible improvement achieved over the last few years, Chinese Taipei still struggle in major international tournaments, but for Wu there’s more to it: “Football’s not all about winning or losing; sometimes a game may return your investments in unexpected ways, that’s why I always give 100 percent on the pitch. I’m also interested in showing the world how interesting and attractive football can be, and I play with the aim of promoting this game and make more people develop an interest in it.”
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Talking of future plans, the young playmaker seems aware of the importance for Taiwan to have players of his generation plying their trade elsewhere. “Of course, I plan on having more trials with foreign clubs in the future, but I’m currently focused on improving my skills here. I believe that being able to play abroad is the dream of every Taiwanese footballer. The local scene still has to grow, so going abroad can make us realise the dream of turning pro. Moreover, besides being useful to test ourselves, playing for a foreign team can help us develop a new kind of footballing mentality, and it gives us the chance to learn from more advanced countries.”
Nevertheless, the partnership between Hang Yuan and Fu Jen University looks like the ideal base for young talent to sprout up and contribute to the progress of Taiwanese football. “If you’re talented, you’ll be given the chance to play,” pointed out Wu. “Being selected for the starting team has to do with your abilities, not with your age. Youngsters are usually more vivacious and they can surprise the coach with their creativity. On the other hand, their performances tend to be unstable over time, that’s why we must never squander a chance to play.”
Hang Yuan is also a place where young players are called to develop a winning attitude and turn into all-round professionals, as Wu states: “The mental aspect is important for we young players. The coach always reminds us to have a positive mindset and to never be afraid of failing, because success must be a long-term goal. Building our self-esteem is just as important as enhancing our technique.
“Furthermore, we’re always encouraged to concentrate on our studies in addition to football training. The coach understands that acquiring new knowledge and skills is essential to train our logical thinking, and that it helps us to analyse every game better. He also cares for our future, since there’s an age limit for being a football player.”
Apart from Fu Jen University, Hang Yuan draw their players from a vast array of other channels, scouring well beyond the national borders. Atsushi Shimono, Michael O’Gorman, Luan Anderson, William Lopez Esquivel and Joo Ik-seong have all been important for the team in recent times, as coach Hung says: “Foreign players have the power to inspire the local ones to comply with the requirements to become a professional player. They bring improvement in terms of mentality, training, diet and attitude. They’ve been contributing greatly to football in Taiwan and they set an example for younger players.”
A big part of the club’s present and past foreigners shares Haitian origins, in a football counterpart of the good diplomatic relations between Taiwan and a nation which is one of 15 in the world to formally recognise the Taipei government. “I’d say that fate brought us together,” reflected Hung. “We don’t particularly seek for Haitian players, but the working relationship with our former and current Haitians has always been good. Our first foreigner came from Haiti, and he introduced some others to us; that’s why we’ve had so many players hailing from there.”
The list is long: Benchy Estama, Louis Emmanuel, Joseph Peterson, Jean-Marc Alexandre, Judelín Aveska. The latter came back in March 2020 for a second spell at Hang Yuan and has established himself one of the most reliable centre-backs in the league since. “I had the grace of God to play in many different countries,” he says. “The reason why I came back to Taiwan is that I made a promise to the coach: to help him train the young defenders in the team.”
Thanks to his long-time experience between Argentina, Ecuador and Chile, the 32-year-old is wily enough to address the differences between football in South America and around Taipei: “As a defender, I can say that forwards in Taiwan are not as fond of going to clash, but they’re really fast. As for tactics, it’s the same in both regions, at least with regards to the defensive phase. Both here and there, defenders are required to be very aggressive and attentive.”
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Although still far from being the number one sport in Taiwan, the status of football in the country is slowly changing thanks to the push of exciting teams like Hang Yuan, not to mention the international exposure enjoyed by the 2020 campaign that kicked off in April amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Football is coming to be gradually accepted by the audience in Taiwan, and this has been greatly affecting grassroots development as well as the national league,” remarks coach Hung. “This season, Hang Yuan is focusing on linking up with our community in order to grow our fan base and foster grassroots development.
“We’re very clear with what we want to achieve. We don’t just aim for the top in terms of results, we also want to attain the status of professional football club. Apart from that, Hang Yuan’s goals will always have to do with the grassroots movement. We believe this is the seed of success that will make all-round improvements in our football scene possible.”
Access to Taiwan’s top flight was previously disputed through preliminary rounds, played between the lowest-placed teams of the previous season and potential new participants in a system which, due to the latter’s poor level, allowed little to no room for newcomers. Since 2020 this is not the case, and a system of promotions and relegations has been put into place thanks to the birth of the Taiwan Second Division Football League.
As noted by Hung, this is a crucial step towards a more competitive environment, even though some underlying problems still need to be tackled: “I agree with the concept of relegation. Teams will be more motivated to seek promotion to the first tier, but they will also need to cope with the stress brought about by the fear of being relegated. This will greatly enhance the league’s competitiveness. Although it’s great to finally have a second division, I think one of the things we should care about the most is coaches. We should take this seriously and make our best efforts to cultivate good coaches who can eventually improve Taiwanese football.
“As for local players, their strong point is that most of them start playing football for a very simple reason: passion. Hence, they’re willing to sacrifice and give their all, and they pair this force of will with a good physical condition too. On the downside, they are weak in technique and dribbling skills; this is a crucial issue that needs to be resolved.”
Despite an area slightly bigger than Belgium, Taiwan has one of the highest densities of mountains in the world, with a whopping 70 percent of its surface raising high above sea level. The Baiyue is a list of 100 mountains chosen by a group of prominent Taiwanese hikers according to the criteria of uniqueness, danger, height, beauty and prominence. All peaks are more than 3,000 metres tall and their inclusion in the list was meant to promote mountain hiking in the country. Right after its draft, the completion of the Baiyue became the primary goal of avid hiking enthusiasts in Taiwan, but ticking it all off is no simple task.
The same is happening with the beautiful game. Taiwan’s football Baiyue is in front of everybody’s eyes, and Hang Yuan daringly took on a couple of important peaks like participating in the AFC Cup and earning their country’s first point there. It was by no means easy, but it looks a doddle compared to the heights awaiting Hung’s boys – and the rest of the local football scene – in the future. Nevertheless, they’re determined, aware of what they need to work hard on and convinced that the path they’re walking is the only one that can lead them to the view at the top.
By Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14