In this year’s AFC Cup edition, Kitchee and Tai Po find themselves in the same group with April 25 from North Korea and Hang Yuen from Taiwan. While the Koreans are regularly treated as the “mystery team” who could as well be favourites to win the group, not much more is known about the Taiwanese club. Therefore, offside.hk planned to shed some light into the dark. We talked to podcaster and writer Mark Henderson, who is based in Taipei where he runs the popular blog From the Tofu Bowl.
For most Hong Kong football fans Hang Yuen are a bit of an unknown force, and there even seems to be some confusion about the name. Could you tell us a bit more about the team?
The name seems to throw confusion each year, and for a while it even had me baffled. The story goes that there is a company called Hang Yuen who sponsored a different team in the Taiwanese league each season. So whichever team they sponsored would have to change their name to Hang Yuen for a season, and when the sponsorship ended they’d revert back to their original name. For this Hang Yuen it would be Fujen University. However, this will be the second season in a row they’ve sponsored Fujen, so maybe Hang Yuen’s previous policy of rotating sponsorship has been thrown out of the window since Fujen/Hang Yuen entered the AFC Cup.
It seems Hang Yuen are the only Taiwanese team in the AFC Cup. How did they qualify, and do you think they are currently the best team in Taiwan?
Hang Yuen have been qualifying by default as they are the only team who hold an AFC club license. They usually finish around 3rd or 4th each season, and have the ability to beat the big two Taiwanese teams, Datong and Taipower. That could all change after this season though, as the CTFA (Chinese Taipei Football Association) held a workshop with all the clubs who are involved in the Taiwan Premier League. They want to encourage all of them to apply for an AFC club license starting from the following season (after the one that is about to start). The workshop was conducted by the AFC, so I think this is a good step being taken by the CTFA to try get more of their clubs involved in the AFC Cup competition, which can hopefully show Taiwanese clubs how far behind they are when compared to others in the region.
Could you tell us a bit more about the Taiwanese league? How would you rate the quality when compared to Hong Kong? And are there any attempts to make the top tier fully professional?
I think that the Taiwan Premier League has a long way to go before it can be compared with the Hong Kong Premier League. In saying that though, the Hong Kong Premier League is a great model for the Taiwanese to follow. Unfortunately, football would still be considered a minority sport in Taiwan, which is unlike Hong Kong, where football could be considered the number 1 sport. In Taiwan football has a hard time competing with basketball and baseball.
There have been plans for years to make the league professional but it seems to be a giant conundrum in how to make this happend given the lack of interest and infrastructure. Without the support it is difficult to grow and to gain sponsorship, and without proper infrastructure it is difficult to generate money from games. However, that brings us back to the problem that there is a lack of interest, so it’s like what comes first, the chicken or the egg.
In making the league professional I believe it really needs to be thought out properly. Otherwise the small and good progress the CTFA has seemingly made each year could be sent back further than anyone would like to see. In trying to make the league professional they could damage football in the country altogether if it went wrong, but at the same time they need to find a way, because players need a pathway that will encourage them that sport can be a route to a successful career in their life. Like I said, a giant conundrum indeed.
How is attendance like in the Taiwan Premier League? And where do Hang Yuen play their games?
The attendance for the Taiwan Premier League is below 100. I think if they get 100 that would be a good turnout. Games are free and all games are often played at the same pitch. Hang Yuen normally hold games at Fujen University, but it is closed at the moment, so it looks as if both games against the Hong Kong sides might be played at the Taipei Municipal Stadium. They played the North Koreans at a pitch in Hsinchu.
Teams mostly don’t have their own stadiums in Taiwan, but Fujen are the closest you will get to that, and even then they don’t always play league games, as the league rotates where games are played around the country.
Recently, Taiwanese defenders Wang Ruei and Chen Tingyang signed for Hong Kong clubs. What do you think about these moves?
These two guys have been two of Taiwan’s most consistent performers over the last few years, and I am glad they have made the move out of the Taiwanese league to a professional one. Because if they would not be able to cut it in a professional environment then there also wouldn’t be much hope for other Taiwanese players.
Interestingly, it seems like someone in the CTFA is trying to push hard to get their better players into clubs in Hong Kong and China. This is a good idea as it will only benefit the national team, but not the league. Nonetheless, it shows that the FA is trying to help those guys to make a career in football, even though there is no professional league in Taiwan.
How would you rate Hang Yuen’s chances in the AFC Cup, particularly against Tai Po and Kitchee? Any predictions for scorelines?
Last year Hang Yuen lost all their games is the AFC Cup, and I think they are likely to do the same again this year. However, they are a young side and have kept their team together for a long time now, probably longer than any other team in Taiwan. Because of that I wouldn’t be surprised if they proved me wrong and nicked a draw or a win against one of the Hong Kong sides at home. Last year they came close against Benfica Macau in a 2-3 loss away. They also only lost 0-1 to North Korean side Hwaebul at home. That in my opinion would be an improvement and a success for Taiwanese football. Any improvement on no wins at all is good for football here.
Hang Yuen re-signed Jean-Marc Alexandre from Haiti. He has a lot of experience playing in the US, and playing professionally. His experience will be what Hang Yuen’s young side needs if they are to get any positive results.
They have also signed two other new foreign players, who are supposed to be very good: Haitian forward Benchy Estama and South Korean midfielder Ju Ik-seong.
What can away fans from Hong Kong expect if they visit the AFC Cup games in Taipei?
Fans coming here to watch a game will have a pleasant experience. The atmosphere will not be intimidating or anything like that. People who will go to watch are mostly interested in watching football, more than following Hang Yuen in my opinion. It is a growing sport and it is getting more popular, so people are interested in watching. Some will likely know the team personally.
For the AFC Cup I believe there is a small charge of NT$ 200 (HK$ 50) in advance or NT$ 300 (HK$ 75) on the day. That is how much it was last time round.