Asian Cup qualifying for UAE 2019 has just recently come to an end, and Taiwan came so near to qualifying for the finals for the first time since 1968. That makes it a full 50 years without appearing at the finals of any major competition and after 3 matches played there looked to be no hope that anything would change. Sitting third in the table after a 3-1 defeat in Taipei to Turkmenistan and a 5-0 hammering away in Manama to top seeds Bahrain looked to have diminished all hope; even if it was briefly aroused by a 2-1 victory away to Singapore that was sandwiched between those two defeats.
Taiwan is truly minnows of the beautiful game and often found themselves languishing at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings with the fans also becoming accustomed to regular defeats. The fans who did show up would often be genuinely happy with Taiwan’s team clearly busting a gut to do all they can to get the desired result to make Taiwanese people happy, and they would cheer them on in this cause regardless of the scoreline; showing that the players and the fans cared equally as much about representing Taiwan and striving to get a result that would make the whole country proud.
After that 5-0 defeat against Bahrain, Taiwan’s well-liked Japanese manager Kazuro Kuroda became seriously ill and could not fulfil his role as the senior teams manager, this led to the CTFA appointing current manager Gary White midway through the qualifying campaign with all Taiwan’s fans thinking that Taiwan was already dead and buried after 3 games played. The mood among football fans on the island was just like always, Taiwan fight hard to achieve results but simply just aren’t good enough and won’t ever win enough matches to reach the finals of a tournament.
Gary White didn’t have a lot of time to make an impact, he was appointed on September 15th and Taiwan would play a crucial qualifier against Bahrain in Taipei on October 10th. If they lost to Bahrain in White’s first competitive game in charge that would equal goodnight Vienna and Taiwan would be eliminated with 2 qualifying games to spare. White immediately realised the importance of changing the mood of the countries football fans; he was on TV doing interviews urging fans to come out and support the team, he was going to local schools and football schools, and he was taking training camps around the country in an attempt to visit as many people as he could before that crucial match would take place.
Luckily for White Taiwan had one friendly pre-arranged before his appointment against Mongolia, this give Taiwan’s new management team a chance to take a look at the players, the game was eventually played a little like an exhibition match with Taiwan winning the game 4-2. What the game did do was give everyone a glimpse of a new approach that would be taken by Taiwan, gone was the defensive outlook of previous management teams hoping that Taiwan avoids defeat and it was a new attacking mentality.
When October 10th rolled around it was obvious that Gary White and his coaching staff had done an excellent job of promoting the game, there was a big crowd attending the game, more so than the previous match against Turkmenistan, it could have been because 10th October is a national holiday in Taiwan, but regardless of that fact the constant promotion barrage still had an effect. Regardless of the new found positivity being emitted from the management team, and the positive atmosphere raining down from the stands; it was still difficult to see Taiwan managing to defeat Bahrain.
Bahrain took a 1-0 lead in the first half after a dodgy penalty, everyone expected Taiwan to crumble like they have done in the past, but in the second half they returned to the field fired up and flew at Bahrain from the kickoff. The pressure looked like it wasn’t going to pay off again as Taiwan would show other countries how to perfect glorious failure. The clock reached the 88th minute when Taiwan’s captain Chen-Po Liang prodded Taiwan a well-deserved equaliser. A draw would have been an excellent result and would manage to give Taiwan a slim hope of qualifying, but what happened next was an incredibly magical moment. Chen Hao-Wei belted over a cross, and Taiwan’s naturalised Turkish striker Onur Dogan leapt like a salmon to nod Taiwan into a 2-1 lead as the clock ticked into the 92nd minute. The scenes were unbelievable as not many people in the stadium had ever had the luxury of seeing Taiwan fight back from a goal down ever before.
That was the start of the transformation, but what was to follow was a glorious extension of that transformation and was also akin to opening a beer with a sledgehammer – basically smashing the dream to pieces. Taiwan travelled away to Turkmenistan in a game they couldn’t afford to lose, as the Gary White revolution gathered pace. Taiwan has historically been terrible away from home, so people feared the worst but Taiwan came out again fired up and attacked Turkmenistan from the kickoff. A lot of good chances and half chances were missed or wasted, and Turkmenistan was more efficient in front of goal taking a 2-0 lead on what were effectively two counter-attacks. Taiwan again attacked and attacked in the second half, but only managed to pull one late goal back through a Chen-Po Liang penalty.
This was Taiwan’s penultimate game and therefore eliminated Taiwan even before they got to play their final game against Singapore. In hindsight, after the final round of qualifying results, we now know that if they had of managed to achieve a draw in the game vs Turkmenistan they would have qualified for the finals in the UAE. This was because Turkmenistan faced off against Bahrain away in their last qualifier and lost 4-0 while Taiwan beat Singapore 1-0. Unfortunately, Gary White was employed a few matches too late, because if he was employed at the start of the campaign there is no doubt he would have managed to help Taiwan qualify.
Taiwan was normally the whipping boys of the group, but the transformation put in place by Gary White and his staff over a short space of time has been truly amazing. The game against Singapore had a lot of U23 players involved in the squad which would unlikely happen before, and one quick look on Wikipedia now shows players are being picked on their ability and form unlike in the past where the squad was effectively the Chinese based players plus Taipower and Datong. As well as this Taiwan’s U23’s have qualified for the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Championship for the first time. The future looks bright and positive for as long as Gary White sticks around. Everyone should be hoping Taiwan can manage to keep him for the next World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers and if that happens then Taiwan has the chance to go further in competitions than they ever have before.