Cosi O Cosi on Dunhua South Rd. has been a mainstay of Taipei's dining scene for over a decade now, but the crowd gathered there wasn't there for the crostini or gelato. An Italian restaurant might not seem like an appropriate setting for the launch of new soccer initiative in Taiwan, but when the project involves English Premier League leaders Chelsea Football Club, the venue kind of makes sense.

Chelsea's Italian ties are strong: Current manager Antonio Conte is the fifth of his countrymen to helm the West London side. Previous managers include two former players Roberto di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli, who were trailblazing Italian imports to the EPL in the mid-1990s.

But, Italian connections aside, why on earth would Chelsea be bringing the razzle-dazzle of the EPL to Taiwan, a backwater of international football, currently ranked 157th in the world? As Chelsea's signature “Blue is the Colour” plays in the background, former Taiwan international Andy Chen (陳信安) explains.

“It started with Santos,” says Chen, who runs the Andy Chen Football School, a youth soccer program that is based at Taipei's Dajia Riverside, home of the Peacocks, a team in Taiwan's Businessman's League.

“The Brazilian football club, I ask?”

Chen smiles. “Hong Kong player,” he says. “Very famous over there.”

Outside of Hong Kong, only diehard fans of obscure trivia are likely to remember the name Leslie Santos (山度士). In the Special Administrative Region, Santos is a bona fide legend. An attacking midfielder, whose career was hampered by several bad injuries, Santos moved into coaching after his retirement. In 2009, his academy signed a cooperative deal to become the ChelseaFC Soccer School HK. The coaches at the school have all participated in an intensive training program with Chelsea FC in the U.K.

Chen met and exchanged ideas with Santos and other coaches in Hong Kong and was impressed by the set-up. He decided there and then that a similar set-up would work wonders for Taiwan. Taiwanese fans being a rather glory-hunting bunch, Chelsea soccer shirts can be seen all over the streets of Taipei these days, so the brand will certainly bring increased visibility to Chen's school.

But Chen is hoping the initial two-day training program, to be held this month in Taiwan, will grow into something bigger. “Right now, Taiwan has no grass roots,” he says. “We need to get the players all playing in the same way at all ages, from young to old.”

Part of the problem is the lack of a “real league.” The Chinese Taipei Football Association recently heralded the launch of the Taipei Premier Football League, but like many, Chen is skeptical about its chances of fostering a new generation of talent.

“They are all university students,” he says. “To become more professional, we must set up a system where teams have real home and away matches. We need to make teams that have their own stadiums and their own fans. That's the only way to create a football culture.”

He believes that the facilities are there to do this, with stadiums at cities island-wide that could be used, but right now the CTFA is going about things the wrong way.

Hong Kong-born coach Chu Hin-fung, who is working with Chen on the Chelsea initiative, is optimistic that cooperation with Chelsea will be beneficial for Taiwanese football. Chu points to the example of top Hong Kong club Kitchee SC where he was a coach for three years. “Kitchee is known as Hong Kong Barca,” he says. “Every year in April they send players to Barcelona to play in a tournament. It's really good for them.”

He agrees with Chen's assessment about creating a genuine footballing culture. “They need to build a whole system,” says Chu. “That includes creating footballing parents, who know how to take care of their kids and help their talent.”


Editor: Edward White