Shenhua's Chen emerges from 'desert'
Updated: 2014-05-11 07:19
By Luis Liu (China Daily)
Chen Po-liang achieved his ambition of becoming a soccer professional and now he wants to inspire other players from Taiwan. Provided to China Daily
Chen Po-liang (right) in an interview with RTHK Putonghua Channel. Provided to China Daily
Taiwan star making his mark in Shanghai after lengthy trek to the professional ranks of soccer
Editor's Note: Soccer is the world's No 1 sport, and China has its own aims for the game. President Xi Jinping has spoken about his soccer dream: China reaching the World Cup, China hosting the Cup and, ultimately, China winning the coveted trophy. However, the nation still lags far behind in the soccer world. The 2014 Brazil World Cup is just around the corner and we have selected 11 key figures from around the country to tell us about their soccer dreams. The interviews will be on RTHK Putonghua Channel at 4 pm on Sundays through June 8.
Taiwan is a "soccer desert", according to the island's No 1 player, Chen Po-liang, and the 25-year-old Shanghai Shenhua midfielder had to endure a tough journey through that wasteland before arriving in China's top league.
As a child, Chen's dream was to play for Taiwan's best team - TaiPower Company FC. It was the dream of many boys like Chen in Taiwan. "The best thing was to train on the same pitch with TaiPower," Chen said. "It inspired me to continue my soccer career."
He started along the path to professional soccer at the National Sports Training Center during his years in high school. While still at school, he emerged as a rising star.
"That is when I got to know formal soccer leagues," Chen said. That was also when he was picked by the National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport to play for the team in Taiwan's city-level league.
In 2008 - his junior year - he scored 12 goals and won the gold boot as well as the player of the year award in the league. His team finished runner-up.
The next year, the side took that final step and won the title and Chen emerged as one of the most outstanding young Taiwanese players. His six goals in a game against Kaohsiung - was the hottest topic among Taiwanese fans. And the championship was the finest of graduation gifts.
Already the most promising soccer star in Taiwan, he joined the Chinese Taipei team. In April 2009, the attacking midfielder scored his first international hat-trick, against Brunei. That same year, he became captain of Chinese Taipei - only four days after his 21st birthday.
And, most importantly for him, he realized his dream and joined TaiPower.
However, soon after, he started to have second thoughts about the move.
Playing soccer in Taiwan is tough, Chen explained.
"Unlike the outside world, soccer is not Taiwan's No 1 sport. Thus not so many care about it," Chen said with a wry smile, "For example, at the university we shared the training pitch with javelin throwers, discus throwers and women footballers. That meant we could only train on a quarter of the pitch.
"And the pitch was made of sand and stones," Chen said. "Me and my teammates wanted to play good soccer but the situation made it difficult."
Taiwan does not have a professional soccer league and TaiPower is an amateur team affiliated to the Taiwan Power Company. The regular path for its players is to join the company as a white-collar worker after retiring from the pitch.
But that was not the kind of life Chen wanted and he started to think on a bigger scale - to become a pro.
"Making the decision was not that hard because I was clear that I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing; I hate going with the flow." Chen said, "If there was a chance, I knew I would definitely go for it."
But in Taiwan, Chen had no role model to follow. He had to discover his own path.
Fortunately, during that time, Chen gave a stellar performance in a tournament against Hong Kong. Two month later, Hong Kong First Division League team Sun Pegasus FC invited him to join it. He gave up TaiPower's security of a life-long job, took the chance, and became the first Taiwanese professional player.
"At TaiPower, we were long-time champions; there were no real challenges," Chen said. "I was not confident in my competence (at the pro level)."
However, playing in the league, Chen quickly picked up the speed of the game. As his stamina improved, he became a key player on the team and scored three goals in seven games.
That experience gave him much more confidence.
"I am not saying the Hong Kong league is easy," Chen said looking back. "I am just saying I knew there were bigger stages waiting for me."
One day there was a knock at his door.
David Camhi, the then assistant coach of Chinese second division team Shenzhen, saw him in action and had recommended Chen to famed head coach Philippe Troussier. The French assistant coach had worked in Taiwan, so he always kept a close eye on Taiwanese players.
Chen had graduated to a new level of soccer.
The first challenge came soon after his arrival when Troussier played him as a defensive midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation. It was neither his best position nor the most suitable formation for him.
At first he couldn't find the right tempo and sense of direction, but Chen tried to see the move as an opportunity.
"Playing that position could give me more chance to observe and control the game," Chen said. "For me it was a learning process."
However, his unsuitability to the role came to a head during a league game against Beijing Baxi. Chen was substituted just 20 minutes after kick-off. For a soccer player, this is seen as a major humiliation.
"I could not accept it." Chen said. "I cried. And I even thought about going back to Taiwan and quitting the game.
"I aimed my hatred at the head coach first," Chen said, "but after watching the replays, I found it was my fault. I barely did anything right on the pitch. The passes, the dribbles and the shots were just awful," he said.
"Now I want to say thank you to Mr Troussier for that game," Chen said. "It refreshed my mind and woke me up from accepting the status quo."
That change in attitude saw him become a regular in the team's starting line-up. Shen-zhen also recovered from its struggles at the beginning of the 2013 season and claimed 24 points in nine games from April to June and climbed to third place.
The following season, Chen finished fifth in the player of the year voting on the largest Chinese-language infotainment web portal, Sina.com.
However, Shenzhen did not gain promotion to the Chinese Super League. As a result, the team did not renew Troussier's contract. Many accused the Frenchman of poor team strategy and stubbornness. But Chen voiced his unswerving support for him.
"It was not all his fault. A successful coach needs a supportive organization and a bunch of players who can execute his tactics," Chen said. "For Chinese soccer, learning is the most urgent mission. No club can simply pay some money and sit there and expect good results. That is not a professional mindset."
Now the former Taiwan 'soccer boy' is playing at Shanghai Shenhua, one of China's premier clubs, and loves the current environment.
"Professional training complex, high-quality training sessions, world-class coaches and great fans ... much better than Shenzhen."
Still, Chen is a dreamer and he has even greater goals in his sights. "I am here to fight for a regular spot and win championships for the city."
To be frank, it is almost impossible for you to play in the World Cup, but do you still harbor World Cup dreams?
Honestly, Taiwan is like a soccer desert. I have never dreamt about the World Cup. But being a player, I will definitely pay close attention to the world-class games. At least for a month we will see the world revolve around soccer - that's the beauty of the game.
What is your favorite team and who is your favorite player?
Germany and Spain. Both play beautifully and get good results at the same time. In the 2014 World Cup, I will imagine myself as Andres Iniesta from Spain or Mesut Ozil from Germany and watch how these players perform. That could act as a kind of learning process while I also enjoy the games.
What is your current soccer dream?
My main dream was to become a pro player, which has come true. What I'm going to do right now is to continue the dream and bring joy to the fans of every club I play at. I'm not someone who is content with the status quo. I may have new dreams, but also realistic ones. So I won't think about playing in Europe. I'll just do my best to bring joy to the fans in Shanghai.
(China Daily 05/11/2014 page11)