Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Latest Football News and Opinions From 90 Minutes Online

China, Naturalisation & the Quest for the World Cup

Football badge of China (via Wikipedia)As their near neighbours crack on with hosting the Rugby World Cup, having kicked off with a win over another former football World Cup host nation- Russia- the Chinese appear to have taken a leaf out of the Brave Blossoms' book & started to look into the option of naturalising players for Team Dragon...



The last time they reached a major tournament was 2002 under the Serb Bora Milutinovic. Japan & Korea's joint bid to host that year's FIFA World Cup won the day, finding China placed in Group C alongside Brazil, Costa Rica & Turkey, before making the short trip home after losing all three matches...not exactly something for the world's most populous nation to shout about?


But as they look to make it to another Asian World Cup in Qatar, something is changing...& inevitably it isn't a universal crowd pleaser. But it is showing promising early results going by the first game of the qualifying campaign, with Brazilian Elkeson scoring two goals in a 5-0 rout of the Maldives.


The man also known by an adopted moniker of Al Kesen, doesn't speak a word of Mandarin but qualified to play for the country under citizenship rules earlier this year, having first arrived to play for Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012. Following in the footsteps of former Everton man Tyias Browning, or Jiang Guangtai if you prefer, who joined Elkeson at the Tianhe Stadium in February of this year and is awaiting a citizenship application.


The defender can at least claim a family connection through his maternal grandfather, though he has yet to make an appearance. Before he could even dream of pulling on the red shirt of China, though, a small bit of history was made during a friendly with the Philippines as Nico Yennaris/ Li Ke paved the way. His call up to the national team marking the first time a non-Chinaman had been awarded a call up following his switch to Beijing Guoan from Brentford, adopting the country of his mother's birth.


That he was able to blaze such a trail at all is down to the man now back at the helm of the side, Marcello Lippi, reappointed 4 months after departing the role following a 3-0 Asian Cup quarter final defeat by Iran.


He took over from fellow countryman Fabio Cannavaro, who decided he could no longer juggle coaching the country as well as Evergrande. It was not an entirely welcome move- some local fans criticising their FA for overlooking Chinese coaches & bringing too many foreign players into the domestic league, while others look to Lippi's extensive experience & hope he can take their country to another World Cup.


A goal shared by no less than President Xi Jinping, who wants his country to host & compete for the Jules Rimet trophy as the final two prongs of a three part plan, the first being qualifying again in the first place!


It's believed that the President is planning for China to be on the way to becoming a dominant Asian nation by 2030- giving him & the Chinese FA just over ten years to achieve that goal before giving another twenty over to the first two.


The wheels began turning in 2016, when the aim, according to the government, was to get around 50 million people involved in playing the game as a first step to raising the dragon up from 71st in the FIFA rankings. A year before that the President had said simply “My biggest hope for Chinese soccer is that its teams become among the world’s best”.


And he's starting early- “football kindergartens” have been set up with the aim of quite literally nurturing young talent! Should all go to plan there'll be one football pitch for every 10,000 people at the completion of the 2030 stage of Xi's grand plan, with 50,000 football schools developing alongside.


Why then the drive towards naturalisation? It would seem that was a condition insisted upon by Lippi for his return, though China's FA has insisted that players who want to take citizenship must study their adopted country's history, language, culture & politics- dual nationality is strictly off the table.


Recognise the flag & learn the national anthem & you're off to a good start! Quoted in the South China Morning Post, a directive issued by the Communist Party states “The grass-roots organisation of the Communist Party of China, which covers the football clubs, will be in charge of educating such footballers on the history and basic theory of the party. The football clubs must have specially assigned staff to track the thinking of such footballers and their performance in training and games. A written report on these matters will be filed to the association each month.”


Compare & contrast with the approach taken by the Land of the Rising Sun- or should that be scrum? For one, players don't necessarily have to be a citizen of the country they choose to represent under World Rugby's laws. A 36 month, or three year, period of residency will do, providing you haven't played for another country at senior level (that last part similar to football's own laws).


And captain Michael Leitch is a fan of such integration- “Japan needs to forge its future together with foreigners from now on. I think the national rugby team can make a good model for that. We can communicate a positive message given our experience.”


He himself migrated at the age of just fifteen, & it seems it was an easy decision to pick his adopted country over his homeland of New Zealand & Fiji, his mother's land. In the rounder of the two ball games, add another two years to the residency period, plus the fact that you can have also played for another country but not at senior level.


It would seem also that Leitch's view on switching nationalities is not shared by his Chinese footballing equivalent. Hao Haidong (their record scorer with 41 goals) has spoken out against the inclusion of non-Chinese players in the team he last played for in 2004, having two years earlier helped them to that first, & to date, only World Cup appearance.


Speaking to Southern People Weekly in his homeland, he asked “Just because the FIFA policy allows naturalization, should countries around the world do that?” It seems he thinks not, as he added that ““the naturalized players in our football team nowadays, they have no blood ties with the country. This is scary, are we becoming better even if we become the World Champion?”


Whether he's discussed the issue with President Jinping goes as yet unrecorded. With qualification for Qatar 2022 set to resume next month with a home match against Guam, Team Dragon sit top of Group A, above Syria on goal difference after the first round of matches. Lippi, & the leader of his adopted nation, will hope he can succeed where Milutinovic ‘failed’.

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