Female supporter in national colors of Spain. Photo: iStock

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As one of the biggest events on the international stage, the World Cup allows for the best 32 men’s and women’s national teams to compete on a mostly benign football (soccer) pitch and not on a bloody battlefield.  

Brazil has won the men’s title five times, while the US has won the women’s title three times. Watched by some three billion people worldwide, a strong showing, such as that of current host Russia or underdog Croatia, naturally instills a sense of national pride and draws respect from citizens of other nations.

Such is the soft power and international status generated by a successful football team that governments actively recruit foreign-born or dual-citizen football players to play for their national team

Such is the soft power and international status generated by a successful football team that governments actively recruit foreign-born or dual-citizen football players to play for their national team. Thirty-five French-born players competed for other countries, such as Senegal, Tunisia, and Morocco in the men’s 2018 World Cup.  Chinese President Xi Jinping has even published document No. 46, making sports part of China’s economic plan, perhaps acknowledging that a great superpower needs a superpower football team.  As Liu Dongfeng, a professor at the school of economics and management at the Shanghai University of Sport argues, “It’s his version of making China great again.

While a superb football team is not necessarily a means to a superpower end, a powerful team is a source of pride among its citizens and places a nation on the international stage.  Some even attest to football’s transformative power, concluding that England’s recent strong performance “has renegotiated the nation’s relationship with the continent.”    

But here in Taiwan, despite growing interest in watching the World Cup, most Taiwanese sports enthusiasts are busy playing baseball, basketball, tennis and badminton, or cycling.  Taiwan’s national team, however, has shown improvement over the last two years at international competitions, and now may be an opportune time to commit time and resources to improve its standing. Taiwan’s men’s team, competing under the name Chinese Taipei, has gone from number 182 three years ago, to number 123 out of 211 according to the latest Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) rankings.

Despite employing a new English head coach, Gary White, who has led the team to six consecutive home wins, Taiwan still has a long way to go.  “What we need now is the government, we need the sports minister, we need everybody who is talking a good game, to actually do something (to make Taiwan’s soccer environment better),” White said, suggesting World Cup games be broadcast more widely on local regular TV networks or cable television, along with creating a regular training ground, and a local all-star team.

Even with successful reform, going from number 123 to qualifying among the top 32 men’s teams for the next World Cup in four years will take a Herculean effort by the Taiwanese – but quite a lot of national pride and recognition on the international stage might be won along the way.

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Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666

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