Why Taiwan’s Asian Cup qualifier against Singapore is still important

Taiwan will play Singapore in an Asian Cup qualifier later this month with the game now becoming a dead rubber in regard to qualifying for the finals in UAE. Taiwan destroyed Turkmenistan away, but Taiwan’s ineffective finishing proved costly meaning Gary White’s vastly improved side will not be travelling to the UAE. Taiwan may look back with envy at what might have been when the finals commence in 2019.

There are still two reasons why the Asian Cup qualifier against Singapore still holds significance. There are two benefits for Taiwan if they can manage to win this game. Taiwan currently sits 134th in FIFA’s world rankings currently, their highest ever placing. The first benefit of defeating Singapore would be maintaining this ranking at least, and improving it slightly at best. 

World Cup qualifiers commence in the same year as the World Cup final ends. This stage is where the minnows of the world stage set off on their journey to World Cup glory. The likes of Bhutan, Maldives, East Timor and Brunei all enter at this stage. These make up part of the continents lowest ranked teams who have to play against each other over a two-legged tie for the privilege of entering the group stage of qualifying.

As Taiwan currently sit in their highest FIFA ranking in their history, it then becomes a very real possibility that they may not have to go through the struggle of the pre-group qualifier. This would be a brilliant bonus as last time Taiwan really struggled through their pre-group qualifying game.

During the qualification campaign for the Brazil World Cup, Taiwan was drawn against Brunei in the pre-group play-off. Taiwan managed to turn the game against Brunei into a struggle to get to the next round, losing the first leg in the southern city Kaohsiung 1-0. If they hadn't turned it around in Brunei then Taiwan’s World Cup dream would have been over for another 4 years.

Worse still, failure to qualify for the World Cup qualifying groups would have seen them eliminated from Asian Cup qualifying too. This was because the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) had decided to make World Cup qualifying count for both the World Cup and Asian Cup. This meant the lowest ranked teams eliminated would not only be out of the World Cup but also out of the Asian Cup. 

Luckily in the second leg, Taiwan managed to do the business in Brunei, by beating the hosts 2-0. This meant Taiwan would be in the pot for the qualifying groups. This game was vital for football in Taiwan.

The game in Taiwan is slowly growing in popularity with more and more people showing interest or becoming fans, a great way to get people out supporting the game in Taiwan are the words World and Cup. Getting into the group stage of qualifying ensured Taiwan would get to play six more qualifiers. This helped to gain interest in the game in the country and build excitement around the sport. Unfortunately, it should have been eight games but Indonesia getting suspended for all FIFA competitions robbed Taiwan of two more games. 

Taiwan's qualifying group was an exciting one and would only have been improved had top seeds Iraq been replaced with South Korea or Japan. This is because a game against South Korea or Japan would cause a lot of excitement in the country. Playing China would raise interest, but for completely different reasons.

Being drawn against South East Asian sides Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia were excellent as each one of those countries is football crazy and has plenty of foreign workers based in Taiwan. The fact so many of each countries nationals were already based in the country promised to create an excellent atmosphere in and around the stadium, something which can be politely described as lacking from many of Taiwan’s other games. Indonesia’s exclusion obviously robbed their fans based in Taiwan the chance of seeing their country play.

Taiwan performed admirably in these games, they often matched their opponents for most of the game but had a terrible habit of conceding goals in quick succession late in the game. 

After making the World Cup qualifying group stage, they were able to enter the Asian Cup qualifying too. Again they had a playoff against a low ranked team. Here they played Cambodia in an exciting 2-2 draw in Taipei. The result meant they had to go to Phomn Pehn, Cambodia and win. However this game did not go to plan as Taiwan lost, this it was presumed meant they would be out of the Asian Cup qualifiers. As things turned out, however, good old Indonesia was to be thanked for giving Taiwan a second chance of getting into the Asian Cup qualifying groups. That was due to there being an odd number of teams. This meant the losers of the pre-group playoff played each other for the chance to win the lucky loser spot.

Taiwan had the might of East Timor to face in this game. Both the home and away leg were played in Taiwan in the space of 3 days, with Taiwan winning both games 2-1 to make the qualifying groups. However, the draw for Asian Cup qualifying wasn’t as kind as the World Cup draw. Taiwan was paired with Bahrain, Turkmenistan and Singapore.

Taiwan was expected to be the groups whipping boys based on current FIFA rankings and results in trying to qualify for the World Cup. Amazingly that was not to be, after an opening game defeat at home to Turkmenistan, Taiwan went away to Singapore and a Xavier Chen inspired Taiwan side managed to come away with a 2-1 win. This built up a lot of peoples hopes that the impossible could actually be possible. The game even made some of the national tabloids for a change. All the excitement and hope quickly disappeared when a managerless Taiwan side travelled to Bahrain to take a 5-0 hiding.

The Taiwan Japanese manager Kazuo Kuroda had been ill and as it turned out he wouldn’t return indicating that maybe his health was pretty severe considering he was unable to continue in his role with the national team. At this point, the footballing community in Taiwan had given up hope again, but just as things were looking very bleak the CTFA went off and pulled one of the biggest masterstrokes in manager appointments you’ve ever heard of, they hired an English man by the name of Gary White. This was unheard of at the time, the CTFA wasn’t exactly renowned at the time for making good decisions.

With Gary White (pictured below) at the helm, Taiwan managed to defeat Bahrain in Taipei in a classic last-gasp win. Trailing until the 88th minute Taiwan scored two goals at the death. This has gone down into folklore, anyone who likes football, or is involved in football in Taiwan will know about this moment. The result was quite remarkable as Gary White probably only had a month to prepare for the game. This sent optimist’s hopes skywards again as the dream was back on. All they needed to do was go to Turkmenistan and win, which wouldn’t be easy. Unfortunately, they failed to beat Turkmenistan and fell at the last hurdle but the buzz these games had created had a lot of people talking, or becoming more interested in football throughout the whole island. For once football was taking the limelight away from basketball and baseball but Tawain will need continued success for the limelight not to be grabbed back by basketball and baseball.

The need to keep up this level is vital as it will keep the ranking high and ensure Taiwan get to play more often. That is the first reason why the Singapore match is important. 

The second reason is linked somewhat to the first, as seen in the game against Bahrain it manages to raise the interest of the game in Taiwan. Currently, football is a minority sport with baseball and basketball being the sports of choice for most young people looking to participate in sports on the island. The World Cup games create a massive buzz which normally fades away and disappears as soon as Taiwan is out of contention, which is normally quick. By achieving relative success more people will be encouraged to participate and more people will be interested in watching and supporting football here.

Success for Taiwan will never be measured by seeing them compete at the World Cup finals because that is an unrealistic goal. Success for Taiwan is measured by competing against the so-called regional big boys or powerhouses, picking up a few wins and draws here and there. If they can do this more often than they’ve managed to do in the past then they will definitely create more fans than ever before. One thing Taiwanese people love even if they don’t understand the rules is Taiwan doing well, and with the masterstroke of hiring Gary White, the chances of this happening are higher than ever before.

Taiwan will face Singapore on 27th March in their last Asian Cup qualifying game.

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