Taiwan, Senegal calm controversy

The China Post staff

While Senegal’s ambassador to Taipei yesterday publicly apologized for the ruckus created by the visit of his country’s World Cup soccer team, the office of Taiwan’s sports authorities was vandalized by a masked man. The National Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, one of the government bodies organizing the visit, condemned the violence. But it refused to speculate whether the man was venting his anger over what has been criticized as a sports and diplomatic debacle to bring the Senegalese footballers to Taiwan. Sources with the sports council confirmed that they had received more than a dozen calls from people angrily complaining about the cancellation of a friendly between the Senegal players and a local team. The Senegal soccer team, having made it to the quarterfinals in their first ever World Cup appearance, arrived in Taipei Sunday for a two-day visit a day after their defeat to Turkey in Japan.

But neither the hosts nor the guests were satisfied with the stay. The Foreign Ministry criticized the footballers for their poor showing Monday morning at a Taipei stadium, where a crowd had gathered to see an advertised friendly that never took place. Rumors said that the friendly was canceled because the appearance fees for the players could not be agreed upon. The guests had their complaints, with one of the team members bursting into a fist of rage, openly criticizing the hosts shortly before boarding a plane back to Senegal.

The airport drama and the cancellation of the match, in addition to the rumors that some of Senegal’s players had hired prostitutes during their stay, have embarrassed the governments of both countries and sparked public anger in Taiwan. The debacle has also threatened President Chen Shui-bian’s upcoming official visit to Senegal, which is one of a few dozen countries that recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

Some opposition lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of inviting the team to Taiwan, while others called it yet another case of Taipei’s “money diplomacy.”

In a damage-control move, Senegal’s ambassador in Taipei, Adama Sarr, held a press conference at the Foreign Ministry to extend an apology on behalf of his country.

When asked whether there had been a disagreement over the footballers’ appearance fee, Sarr said he knew nothing about the details of their contract with the organizers.

But he said he did not think the money should have been a problem, because many of the players earn big money playing for European clubs. He dismissed the idea that the visit was the result of “money diplomacy,” saying the soccer team came to Taiwan for friendship. Sarr also confirmed that the hollering man at the airport was only a businessman commissioned by the Senegal government to promote the soccer team. He said that man had had problems with the team since he took the job, and his misbehavior at the airport should be condemned. Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said if the controversy is allowed to go on, President Chen’s Senegal trip may have to be canceled. He also noted that the airport episode involved only one man, and should not be interpreted as the overall attitude of soccer team. While Sarr was making his apology, some local protesters were rallying outside the Foreign Ministry building, accusing the government of wasting the people’s money on the football players’ trip. Meanwhile, police said the vandalism that took place at the sports council could have been only a personal feud involving the council’s chairman, Lin Teh-fu.

According to police, the vandal, wearing a cap and a mask and armed with a baseball bat in each hand, showed up at the sports council’s office on the 11th floor of a building on Taipei’s Chulun Street at about 805 a.m., asking for the chairman. When an official, Chang Wu-lung — the only person in the office at the time — replied that Lin was not in, the man dashed into the chairman’s room and started smashing the furniture. He warned Chang not to call the police before leaving.

The man was about 30 years old, 175 cm tall and thick set, and was wearing a gray jacket and a pair of sports pants, according to Chang’s description. Police said they could not find any tape recordings of the man from the building’s surveillance cameras, and the security guards did not recall seeing any person similar to the that description. Police suspected that the man entered the building from the basement parking garage.