Online game helps Taiwan unearth soccer talent

MECHELEN MAN:On his first trip to Taiwan in 15 years, Belgian first-division player Xavier Chen plans to meet his grandfather and get better acquainted with the country

STAFF WRITER, WITH CNA

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 - Page 19

Playing online games isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Without it, Taiwan’s Chinese Taipei Football Association (CTFA) wouldn’t have found Xavier Chen, a Taiwanese-Belgian professional soccer player who the association hopes will play for Taiwan at international level.

Ginola Chen, CTFA public relations director, found the name “Xavier Chen” when he was playing an online FIFA soccer game last October and thought it was probably just a role created by gamers.

However, it only took a Google search for him to realize he was wrong. The real-life Xavier Chen is a 26-year-old right-back for Belgian first-division side KV Mechelen, who had captained the Belgian under-19 national team.

After weeks of e-mail correspondence with the soccer player, Ginola Chen knew the recruiting opportunity was too good to miss for Taiwan, currently ranked 167th in the FIFA world rankings. He flew to Brussels and spent a week trying to persuade the Taiwanese-Belgian, who has a Taiwanese father and a French mother, to play for Taiwan.

“That’s the beauty of the Internet — a modern way to find players, isn’t it?” Xavier Chen said in Taipei on Tuesday when he was greeted at the Taipei Stadium by dozens of television cameras and reporters.

On his first trip to Taiwan in 15 years, Xavier Chen plans to meet his grandfather, a former diplomat, and to get to know Taiwan better, Ginola Chen said.

“We’re not trying to force him into making any decision,” he said.

Xavier Chen said that while his family still keeps some Taiwanese traditions — mostly foods, especially the mapo tofu his mother cooks — his knowledge of Taiwan and Mandarin has been limited because his father insisted on full integration into Belgian culture.

He said that he hasn’t made any decision on joining the Taiwanese national team, but Taiwan “is my father’s country — and mine as well — which has a special part in my heart. I think my family will be glad if I choose to play for Taiwan.”

China also made an attempt to recruit Chen in April, three months after the CTFA contacted him. Chen said he was open to meet with anyone to “check every opportunity” and that Taiwan was definitely one of the options.

A report on a Chinese media Web site in April, however, said that because Beijing does not accept dual citizenship, Chen would have to relinquish his Belgian citizenship to represent China. Taiwan allows dual citizenship.

“It’s a dream for every player to play for a national team,” he said, adding that at 26, the window of opportunity for him to earn a place on the Belgian national team is closing fast and that was why he wanted to keep his options open.

For Chen to play for Taiwan, the CTFA will have to negotiate with Chen’s club in Belgium. Insurance and travel between Europe and Taiwan during the European soccer season would have to be taken into consideration, Ginola Chen said.

Xavier Chen, who reportedly earns 700,000 euros (US$837,000) annually with Mechelen, is unlikely to play regularly in Taiwan, where the domestic league is weak.

“It’s a shame because football is popular in the world. I don’t know why it couldn’t be popular in Taiwan,” Xavier Chen said.

If he were to agree to play for Taiwan, it is likely his first games would be Asian Cup qualifiers next year.

Chen is scheduled to fly back to Belgium on Saturday, which means he will watch the opening game of the World Cup tomorrow in Taipei. The University of Brussels law school graduate said his favorite player is French winger Franck Ribery and hopes France do well in South Africa.

He is not the first foreign-born player the CTFA has tried to recruit. The association has also been in contact with Taiwanese-Spanish player Victor Chou, an 18-year-old defender who plays for the youth team of UD Salamanca.