Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The first few questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:
“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”
This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!
The eleventh instalment of the series is an interview with Mark Henderson, the co-founder of the excellent Asian football website and podcast, From The Tofu Bowl, who is based in Taiwan. I wanted to know more about the website, how it came into being, Asian football in general, as well players he would choose in his all-time starting eleven.
Q. Could you tell me about your website “From The Tofu Bowl“, and what does it cover?
We attempt to cover all the countries who are a member of the EAFF (East Asian Football Federation), so that’s China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Guam, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Macau and the Northern Mariana Islands, but there’s a lot of issues in finding info from these countries. Mongolian doesn’t work with ‘Google Translate’. North Korea is a black hole for information. Whilst the smaller countries barely have any news or interest, but I’m interested in it, and if something interests me, then I put it on the site because it may interest someone else regardless if it’s from an East Asian powerhouse or a minnow. I’d consider none of our teams ‘middle tier’.
Q. How did the website come about, and how was it created?
I’ve been living in Taiwan for 10 years, and got into the football scene here from ‘day one’ pretty much. I joined an expat kick-about, but they told me I couldn’t play in any kind of competitive matches. When I found out the Sunday players didn’t have to pay but the kick-about players did have to, I was furious and started my own team.
No one thought I’d do it but I did. I created ‘Taipei Magpies‘. We weren’t the best initially and every one mocked us, so I decided they’re all getting hammered. Amazingly no one was using social media in Taipei to recruit players. I was the first, and we got some bloody excellent players, and we indeed hammered all the mockers, who weren’t laughing anymore. Instead, they started moaning that I should give them players and change the league rules to suit them. Unfortunately this is how football is here, in every league so slowly. Surely enough, the clubs with more resources started copying my methods and eventually I could barely find any players and we went back to getting hammered again. I got sick of arguing, sick of the pettiness, sick of having my weekends ruined by stuff you’d be angry at small children for, so I chucked it in.
However I still wanted to do something with football because it’s the only thing I’m bothered about pretty much. So I decided to revamp an idea I had months before by starting ‘From the Tofu Bowl‘, we tried to make Asian football, but it was all a bit rubbish. Owain [Lacey] was involved in that too, and when I decided to get it going again, I knew if I wanted to be successful the idea is too big for me alone. So I couldn’t think of anyone to work on it with than Owain, who used to be my flat mate when I first moved to Taipei 10 years ago.
The name comes from what I heard someone saying to me years ago that Taipei is like a bowl, as Taipei City is very flat but everywhere you see around it there’s mountains. So the city is the bottom of the bowl and the mountains are the wall of the bowl. As well as that, stinky tofu is one of Taiwan’s national dishes. It’s basically a street food and is seen all over Taiwan. It tastes good but it’s an acquired taste for me, built up over the years, and trust me, it truly bloody stinks. My mother nearly puked the first time she smelt it.
Q. What do you think of the standard of Asian football currently? Do you think there are reasons to be optimistic?
In Asia, a lot depends on the association and how serious they are about developing football as there’s a lot of cronyism goes on here. People are aware it happens but not a lot can be done, especially because of FIFA rules.
For example, the last Taiwan FA (CTFA) president made fake football associations in order to vote for himself in elections and keep himself in power. Anyone doing this only has a vested interest. The Taiwanese government got involved to get it sorted then were threatened with expulsion from all FIFA competitions because of government interference, which is insane. A lot of Asian countries have faced similar problems, such as Indonesia, Kuwait. Bahrain, Pakistan etc. Ironically though China seem exempt from a FIFA ban even when they force players out of the league to join the army and loads of other randomness. Guam’s last president got charged and banned from FIFA too for skimming the money off the top, which is terrible considering he forced Guam to withdraw from Asian Cup qualifiers citing lack of financial resources as the reason. So if you’re stuck with an FA like this, you’re screwed.
On the flip side though, there are football associations in place in Asia that are doing some brilliant work. Vietnam have improved so much that they’re now the best south-east Asian nation. Tajikistan are performing brilliant and have a wonderful FA president so I have heard. Taiwan now have a great president and are putting a lot of time and effort into developing football. Then there is Japan who fund and support a lot of brilliant work in football development all over Asia. So these kind things show there is hope for smaller counties in Asia
My personal opinion is the gap is so huge between the very top sides and bottom ones. Sides who have potential to close that gap currently, if you ask me, are Tajikistan, Vietnam, maybe India (where football is growing rapidly)
Unfortunately, it could be another decade or more for these counties to even think about being on a level with the likes of Japan. So the future is bright as long as a good guy gets the role and manages to keep hold of his position from the snakes and sharks that dominate Asian football confederations.
Q. Where are the best places in Asia to watch football, in your opinion?
Japan is the best place to watch football within Asia. Good league structure. Solid history. Famous teams. Decent number of fans rock up to games. I’d recommend Japan based on those things, and also the technical quality of the leagues is the highest Asia has to offer.
Q. What has been the best games you have seen live whilst writing for ‘From The Tofu Bowl’?
The best game I ever saw was when Taiwan [Chinese Taipei in FIFA competitions] came from 1-0 down to beat Bahrain in about 3 minutes of football before the final whistle.
It was also my first time standing in the part of the stadium with the tiny band of Taiwan ultras. Maybe 50 or less at most games. We’re basically the equivalent to a small lower league or non league club. Even one of the ultras visited me in hospital when I had my back flipping off the mountain accident, and he gave me an ultras t-shirt to officially announce me as one of the crew I suppose.
That match was one of the best I’ve seen. Slightly before the blog, but still connected in a big way, as it sent me down a path to writing more about football and what I love, instead of trying to write about what I think will make me loads of dosh and get me out of an office job and into the world of ‘money for eating a biscuit’ or some other blogger nonsense like that. I finally noticed, after that Bahrain match, why the hell am I not just writing about footy and content myself with being a pauper?
Q. Are their any particular players that you have seen that people, who are unaware of Asian football, should keep tabs on for the future?
These are Taiwan’s best players:
- Will Donkin – An 18 year old who just moved to Stabæk in Norway, and will be huge here if football truly takes off.
- Miguel Sandberg – Half-Swedish, half-Taiwanese. He was at Djurgårdens in Sweden but has recently moved to play more football and I forgot the name of the team. An attacking midfielder similar to Will Donkin, but he’s a bit younger than Donkin and already looks more aggressive on the field and a born leader.
- Lin Ming Wei – Just captained the under 19’s and looked good. I’m not sure which one he is though looking online. That’s the problem with not reading Chinese characters well when people have the same names.
- Pan Wen Chieh – Taiwan’s keeper is a beast. He’s eccentric, a bit of a mad case at times but he’s, by far and away, Taiwan’s best keeper. Apparently wasn’t being picked for years because he’s outspoken. Plays for Tatung as most Asian clubs ban teams from signing foreign keepers
- Chen Po Liang, Wen Chih Hao, Yaki Yen and Wang Chien Ming are Taiwan’s players playing at the highest level. The first three are in the Chinese second tier. Korean Wang was in the Korean second tier [with Gwangju FC] but I believe he was released. Great player but there’s an issue with the Korean government so he can’t play now. Basically Korean law said if your father wasn’t Korean, then you can’t be a Korean citizen. Korean Wang’s dad is Taiwanese and his mother Korean, so he was only considered Taiwanese. Korea changed the law. He applied for citizenship and got it. Now he needs to renounce his Korean citizenship to be allowed to play for Taiwan according to FIFA rules, but Korea won’t let him until he does military service. A big annoyance.
- Wang Ruei and Chen Hao Wei are now in Hong Kong playing for Yuen Long and Eastern.
Q. If you could make any changes to any part of Asian football, what would it be and why?
Taiwan specific, I would change these things:
First of all, I would force the clubs to start representing a city instead of a tiny microcosm of society. Currently the league consists of: a technology company, a power company, a foreign expat team, and a 4 or 5 university teams. Plus some random team someone made in Taichung.
I would force them to get out and about and make them aware that Taiwan has a league. Your city has a team now and they want your support.
No one in their right mind will waste their time watching a university team, a team of expats or a company team because what do they actually represent? They don’t really represent a geographical location. Football is tribal and Taiwan needs to realise this and utilise the tribalism in a positive way to promote football. Tribalism doesn’t always need to be negative. Get the best parts about your city and why you are proud of it.
Other than this, kick off times are a major issue and marketing.
Q. If people wish to watch Asian games live, what sources would you suggest to watch them on?
Most FAs in Asia now stream their own live games if they cannot get any media organisation to show it. They either use a platform like MyCujoo which is excellent for a minor leagues around Asia. They have matches from Mongolia, Guam, Bhutan, Macau, etc.
If they don’t use a steaming service, they normally just broadcast live to their own YouTube channel. I know Bahrain and Taiwan have done this.
Al-Kass is a site from Qatar which shows games from the Middle East. It is free and is TV quality. It’s in Arabic, but just flick through channels and you’re grand. I watched loads of World Cup games on there.
The Ratuken Sports app shows 3 Japanese league matches a week and the quality is excellent. You’ll be geo-blocked if Dazn broadcasts in your country though I believe.
Other than those, I’ll either watch on Eleven Sports, or ELTA here who have the rights for football.
Failing all these options, my fall back is Chinese language streams as I’m able to read the site, due to what I’m looking for being easier Mandarin to read, but sometimes simplified characters are different to traditional ones which makes it awkward.
As well as that, there’s always some Chinese girl randomly speaking over the top of the football. I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t understand as I would think she’s just commentating but she isn’t, she blabbering on about her daily life, what she ate, what music she likes, what she did at uni or work, etc. I just think, “let me watch the football for Christ sake!”. I try without sound but having no sound is weird too. Because of this Chinese streams are a last resort.
If any of your followers can read Chinese, I’m happy enough to share the links with them. Or if they don’t speak Chinese and want to give it a whirl I can share it with anyone.
Q. Finally, who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?
Goalkeeper: José Luis Chilavert
Who doesn’t want a goal-scoring keeper who can bang in free kicks? Only one of two keepers to ever score a hat trick. I was tempted to go for [Estonian goalkeeper] Mart Poom, purely because of his diving header, but he played for the ‘mackems’ [Sunderland]! Plus Chilavert is a nutjob! He threatened to go to war! So he’s a free-kick goal-scoring nutjob! He’s in!
One of the best attacking full backs ever. Better than Roberto Carlos, who lived off that free-kick.
Centre-back: Jaap Stam
A beast of a centre-back. One of the best I’ve ever seen. Only sold [by Manchester United] because of his book.
Centre-back: Phillippe Albert
The first ever attacking centre-back I’ve ever seen live. That god damn chip over big Peter [Schmeichel] is ingrained in my brain.
Left-back: Paolo Maldini
The best defender to come out the 1990’s. Started at full-back, then moved to centre-back later in his career. Excellent player covers two positions.
Central midfield: Gheorghe Hagi
A genius! Not many come close to how good he was.
Central midfield: Carlos Valderrama
An all-round midfielder. Ball-playing genius. Makes things tick. Woke up and sneaked downstairs all of the 1994 World Cup to watch him when my parents said I should have been sleeping.
Central midfield: Robert Prosinecki
A hard working attacking midfielder, who was bloody amazing. In the 1998 World Cup, him and Boban were bloody brilliant for Croatia.
Left forward: Hristo Stoichkov
That Bulgarian 1994 World Cup team was amazing. Loved Letchkov, but Stoichkov was amazing. I loved him. Angry little bastard too. I love that.
Centre forward: Alan Shearer
Goal machine. Toon legend. Forever loved! Never forgotten. 🙋♂️< never got tired of watching this!
Right forward: Romario
The original brilliant Brazilian genius, before the real Ronaldo. He also beat the hell out of some guy who attacked him with a chicken. Another nutjob – there’s a theme here haha.
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel
The best goalie in the Premier League sadly. The reason Newcastle didn’t win the Premier League.
Defender: Franco Baresi
Baresi was the best defender of his generation, but he’s benched because Albert is more attack-minded.
Midfielder: Nobby Solano
Better than Beckham when playing in the Premier League. Not English and played for the Toon, so never mentioned. Loved playing his trumpet in the toon, with his band ‘Geordie Latinos’.
Midfielder: Zvonimir Boban
The same reason as Robert Prosinecki above.
Midfielder: Pavel Nedved
He’s the reason the Czech Republic got to the 1996 European Championships, and I used to pretend I was him when slamming the ball through jumpers, as a kid on the grass.
Forward: Gabriel Batistuta
My favourite player on ‘Football Italia’, on Channel 4. Those sexy Fiorentina shirts, his long hair, and all those god damn goals!
Forward: George Weah
A goal machine!
A massive thank you to Mark for answering my questions and being a fantastic guest on the Starting XI series! I certainly have learnt a lot about the status of Asian football, especially Taiwanese football in particular, and where are the best places to watch Asian games. I was impressed with his starting eleven, especially that creative midfield three! Oooof!
To find out more about From The Tofu Bowl, the links to the blogsite, podcasts, social media accounts, etc. can be found below:
- Website: www.fromthetofubowl.com
- Podcast: https://fromthetofubowl.podbean.com/
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcssWf4gGP7TnBr1cAnW-HQ/videos?
- Twitter: @TheTofuBowl
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fromthetofubowl/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fromthetofubowl/
To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.
If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at email@example.com! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!