SINGAPORE: China’s quest to reach the 2022 World Cup got off to a flying start last week when the national team thrashed Maldives 5-0 in the first qualifying game.
The Chinese national team only managed to reach just one World Cup back in 2002 but harbours dreams of getting there again. This time around, they had a trick up their sleeve - a striker born in Brazil.
The striker in question is Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso, who is now known as “Ai Kesen” after becoming a Chinese citizen in August. He is also the first player of non-Chinese heritage to represent the country at football.
He is unlikely to be the last - with as many as nine other players going through the process of naturalisation, according to newly elected Chinese Football Association (CFA) president Chen Xuyuan in August.
DREAMS OF BECOMING A FOOTBALL POWERHOUSE
China wants to shed its label as a “sleeping giant” of world football.
In 2016, the CFA announced a plan to turn China into a leading nation in Asian football by 2030 and a global powerhouse by 2050. The desire for change came right from the top.
Even before he became president in 2013, Xi Jinping was a well-known football fan. In 2011, he expressed three wishes for the sport – for China to qualify for a World Cup, host the World Cup and eventually win the tournament.
Major Chinese conglomerates such as Evergrande which started in real estate, retail giant Suning and Shanghai Port Group SIPG, took over clubs in the Chinese Super League.
There was major investment in international stars such as Elkeson and bigger names. Major Brazilian international stars as Givanildo Vieira de Sousa (better known as Hulk), Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior, Alex Teixeira and Jose Paulo Bezerra Maciel Junior (better known as Paulinho) arrived as the total spending on transfer fees soared to US$1.15 billion in 2016.
As famous players made the move to China’s league, so did world-class coaches, to take control of the country’s leading clubs.
Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup, arrived at Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012 and delivered three Chinese Super League titles and one Asia Champions League triumph - the first time for a Chinese club to win the continental title.
In 2016, he took over the national team and left in January 2019 after taking a squad to the 2019 Asian Cup with an average age of 29.2 - the oldest of the 24 nations in the tournament.
The Italian explained that he had looked at younger players in the country but none were good enough. The lack of Chinese children taking up the game has long been a problem.
Moves have been made this decade to change this with the Chinese government rolling out a football programme in over 20,000 schools, building 50,000 pitches and training physical education teachers to become more specialised in football training.
It should lead to a bigger playing pool and, with more specialised training, produce players of a higher quality than is currently the case but this will take time.
China may have a population of 1.4 billion but has lagged behind neighbours South Korea and Japan in terms of people who actively play the game.
Schools have traditionally not prioritised the sport and cultural factors factors such as the one-child policy, that ended in 2015, encouraged parents to push their children away from the uncertain career of a football player into more traditional fields such as law, medicine or business."
NATURALISING FOREIGN PLAYERS
Still, the move to bring in more foreign coaches and naturalised players have been contentious, and football officials in China know this.
CFA president Chen has been sanguine about naturalising non-Chinese football players and said it could be a useful way to achieve short-term goals of qualifying for the next World Cup, but highlights his priority is to find a sustainable strategy to develop the Chinese football scene.
Lippi, who returned to the top job for a second spell in May, agrees, and has said his larger goal is to cast a wide net with naturalising eligible foreign players remaining just one viable option.
(FIFA says they must not have represented their former nation at a senior level and must have been residents for five years - as a condition in accepting a spot on the national team.)
But at the age of 71, Lippi is focused solely on his team qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. He knows Elkeson, a two time top-scorer in the Chinese Super League, is key to this as he will boost China’s attack.
If Ricardo Goulart, as expected, also swaps his Brazilian passport for a Chinese one, then the country will also have one of the best playmakers in Asia.
This does not mean that China will turn into World Cup contenders overnight. After all, if these Brazilians had been world-beaters they would have been selected to play for Brazil. But China’s qualification for 2022 will certainly be within reach.
Yet the addition of Elkeson, who has been a popular player in the Chinese league, has been controversial and he has asked fans for support.
“I am Chinese” said Elkeson in August as he was selected. “I want to tell the world, I am Chinese, I want to return all the love and care you have for me over the years. I hope to get your support as always.”
Still, few seem to see Elkeson as Chinese and wonder if a quick fix for sporting glory is worth such a shake-up to the national team.
Hao Haidong, China’s record goalscorer and a mainstay of the team that reached the 2002 World Cup, has come out vehemently against the new policy of naturalisation.
“The naturalised players in our football team nowadays, they have no blood ties with the country,” said Hao in August. “This is scary, are we becoming better even if we become the World Champion? So just because the FIFA policy allows naturalisation, should countries around the world do that?”
The reaction on social media seems to echo Hao’s views. Leading football commentator Zhan Jan wrote to his 16 million followers on Weibo that “Don't know how the fans who care about Chinese football are feeling? I can't get over it.” Most of the thousands who commented on the post agreed with Zhan.
It has been easier for Nico Yennaris.
The English-born midfielder joined Beijing Guoan from London club Brentford in January and was called up by Lippi to take on the Philippines in June. Yennaris, now known as Li Ke, has a Chinese mother and his selection created little controversy.
Elkeson has no such blood ties and can only hope that scoring goals will change perceptions. It might. If the striker can make the difference between qualification for the 2022 World Cup and missing out once again then public opinion may change.
China is hungry for success in football but for now, it remains to be seen if the country’s fans will get behind their new team.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene for The Guardian, New York Times, BBC, ESPN, Associated Press and others. He is the author of 3 books including ‘Lions & Tigers - the History of football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).