This article was brought to you by Futbolista as part of The Away End. Futbolista is on a mission to chronicle fútbol, through a print and digital magazine.

There are very few stadiums around the globe that can boast a relationship with a country’s history as intimate as the Chungshan Stadium does. Located in the Taipei district of the same name, the iconic structure was first unveiled in 1923 with the name of Maruyama Stadium, betraying its belonging to the period when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, following the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Initially used for baseball and home to Taiwan’s very own qualifying rounds for the prestigious Japanese High School Baseball Championship, it was designated as a military hospital starting from 1939.

After World War II, the stadium came to testify America’s growing interest in the Asia-Pacific zone. It first became a warehouse for the goods Washington sent over as part of their aid plans, before turning into the base of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, stationed on the island from 1951. Only in 1989, after the deterioration of the Taiwan-USA relations, was the Chungshan finally reconstructed as a football-specific stadium.

Nevertheless, due to the belated and limited development of the game in the country, not to mention the planes departing from and heading to the near Songshan Airport, that made communication on the pitch very difficult, its main purpose often remained that of hosting concerts, with the likes of Michel Jackson, Bon Jovi and Kylie Minogue all greatly delighting their sold-out audience.

In 2004, the Taipei City Government made clear its intention to turn the Chungshan into a multi-purpose space by entrusting its management to the Hope Foundation. Three years later, it was finally declared that the stadium would serve as the main venue of the 2010 Flora Expo. The actual closure was postponed until November 2008 to allow the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds to be brought to completion, given the absence of other FIFA-approved grounds in the country. Then, with the construction of Kaohsiung’s futuristic National Stadium and the reconstruction of the Taipei Municipal Stadium, both completed in 2009, the decision was taken not to convert the Chungshan back to its original purpose. Nowadays, it still fulfils the functions of exhibition area and conference hall. A quick glimpse at its official Facebook page it’s enough to get an idea of the place it still holds in the heart of Taiwan’s football fans, with photos of the blueish sun-bleached terraces still visible from outside often paired with comments like “This place is so full of memories…”

It’s on those very terraces that it all started for Lin Chia-chi, one of the most prominent football aficionados in the entire country and founder of the Blue Blood Knights, Taiwan’s main fan association. “I started to like this sport as a kid, when I saw Captain Tsubasa on TV, but 20 years ago the Taiwanese football environment was way less developed than it is now,” he tells FUTBOLISTA Magazine. “Then, in 2006, while I was watching Taiwan playing South Korea at Chungshan Stadium, I became determined to pay close attention to the local league.” The latter was still in its first phase back then, launched as early as 1983 under the name of Enterprise Football League. It would have to go through the interregnum of Intercity Football League (from 2007 to 2016) before becoming what it is today, the Taiwan Football Premier League. Despite the growth experienced over the last few years, and testified by the global interest sparked by a championship that regularly kicked off amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the birth of a national second tier in 2020, Taiwanese football is still looking forward to definitively taking off. “I’m very sorry that football is not popular in Taiwan,” Chia-chi says. “That’s because our national game is baseball, which is played professionally, while football is still semi-professional.”

Despite its young age, the Taiwan Football Premier League is gradually gaining momentum thanks to some very exciting teams. As a supporter of two of them, Chia-chi walks us through the processes that can turn a Taiwan football enthusiast into a true fan. “I started paying attention to Hang Yuan, whose home field lies inside Fu Jen University in New Taipei, in 2016,” he recalls. “It was a matter of territorial belonging, connected to the fact they became the first club with a fixed home ground. I also support Taichung Futuro, because they flaunt an all-Japanese style reminiscent of the long-standing bound between Taiwan and Japan.” Chia-chi, however, is keen to stress that, just like elsewhere, it’s by no means common to support two teams at once in Taiwan: “My case is a rather particular one, as most supporters here root for just one team. Most first-tier clubs in Taiwan run football schools with kids ranging between six and sixteen years old; quite naturally, their parents become fans of the club and in no time they get into action on matchdays to sustain it. Another common dynamic is that of players who get into coaching to make up their wages, and obviously their kids start to turn up at official games to support them.” In recent times, the way supporters get together and stay active has been experiencing dramatic developments too. “In the last couple years, we’ve slowly started to organise ourselves in associations. Besides watching games together, we also invite kids for kickabouts, and we go to the sport pub if we’re not at the stadium,” he explains, giggling.

Despite a league that gets more interesting and popular with each passing year, the team that most of all captures the imagination of the Taiwanese, and makes them feel proud to belong where they were born, remains the national squad. “As soon as there’s an international game, all supporters of all teams in the Taiwanese league rally together,” points out Chia-chi. “In this respect, we’ve always been like this. It’s something that has never changed.”

In 2005, such a strong bond with the all-blue shirt resulted in the birth of Raffiche Azzurre (Italian for “Blue Gusts”), Taiwan’s first national team supporter group. Their passion for foreign things, already clear in their name, is eloquently illustrated by the bio on their Facebook page, together with their other cornerstones. “1. We devote ourselves to the use of European-style ways for sustaining the male and female national teams of every level and acting as their biggest backup force on home field. 2. We advocate a league built around the clubs, the concept of a deep territorial interconnection and a flourishing sport culture in Taiwan.” Next up is their enlistment process: “There’s no registration form to fill in, but going to the stadium to witness the battle, standing up and singing for its whole duration, are considered basic requirements to be an ultra. You’re responsible for your actions, you go to fight for Taiwan.”

However, opting for Western-style cheers implies the necessity to, if not fighting, at least trying to soften up certain habits that are not very suitable for projects like that of Raffiche Azzurre. The post published by the group’s Facebook page on October 2017, accompanied by a funny illustration of a happy fan with the hands joined before his chest next to one with the arms high above his head, is a good example: “In the last few years, I’ve attended quite a few games abroad. I firmly believe that Taiwanese fans can match foreigners when it comes to enthusiasm. Nevertheless, our limbs and body still present an image of us as gentle, quiet and somewhat unrefined people. Luckily enough, this gap is not as difficult to plug as the one we show on the football field. Tonight, when you cheer, don’t forget to rise up those same hands you would clap in front of your chest, let’s all leap over this gap together!”

Along with the bent for European football culture comes a great deal of attention for the roots of Taiwan, starting from the extensive references to “Formosa”, the name given to this speck of land in the 16th century by the Portuguese, which simply means “beautiful isle”. Even more interesting is the decision to resort to the languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Taiwan for the lyrics of the chants to be used inside the stadium. The phenomenon ranges from “Inahai inahai Formosa” (Bunum language), to “Formosa lokah” (Atayal language), to “Saicelen Formosa” (Amis language), all of them roughly sharing the meaning of “come on Formosa”.

Given the uncertain political status of Taiwan, officially recognized only by a tiny part of the world’s nations, no longer a member of the UN since 1971 and claimed by the Popular Republic of China since the latter was founded in 1949, it comes as little surprise that a national team supporter group might represent, for some, the chance to voice nationalistic sentiments. Particularly meaningful is, in this sense, a comment found under the cover image of the Raffiche Azzurre Facebook page, which is none other than the huge banner revealed for the World Cup qualifiers in 2015 that features Mount Yu, the Formosan black bear and the phrase “We fight shoulder by shoulder”. “Taiwan lost to Hong Kong at the EAFF East Asian Cup,” the comment reads. “Did you find out that the anthem representing Hong Kong was the “March of the Volunteers”? On November 13th and 16th, for the games versus Mongolia and North Korea, I invite all of you to be at the Taipei Municipal Stadium and cheer our national team! I really envy the players of other teams and their fellow countrymen, who can proudly open their mouths and sing their national anthem. The players of my country, on the other hand, have no idea as to how should they open their mouths when in front of the flag that represents us at international competition, with the plum blossom and the five Olympic rings on a white background.”

The commitment shown by Raffiche Azzurre in more than a decade of loyal service, although topped off by a multitude of blue scarves, a long battle to safeguard the Chungshan Stadium and large “All hail Formosa” banners hung around urban centres, sadly came to a close in 2017 with the group’s dissolution. Nonetheless, it proved a short-lived hiatus, as 2018 saw the birth of the Blue Blood Knights, with which Raffiche Azzurre, suddenly revived around the same time, eventually merged.

Today, even though the people’s game is still not as popular as baseball and basketball in Taiwan, it looks like cautious optimism is starting to surface with regards to the future of football and the enthusiasts surrounding it. “The general mood of fan associations has greatly improved,” remarks Chia-chi. “As far back as ten or so years ago, the Taiwanese national team only had a small bunch of faithful fans to support them.” Despite improvements of this kind, not to mention the small yet constant ones in terms of international results and breeding of new young talents by local clubs and universities, anyone closely following football here is aware that some shortcomings need to be addressed before more Formosan hearts can join those already beating as one when looking at local athletes chasing a ball on the grass. That’s why, when asked to imagine the future, the founder of the Blue Blood Knights has few doubts: “My hope is that football in Taiwan can achieve an actual professionalization, and that all clubs can own a stadium.”