How Brazilians and ex-England youth players could lead China to Qatar 2022

In Depth

As footballing mismatches go, there aren’t many bigger. Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States with a population of 170,000, versus China, population 1.4 billion.

It is Asian football’s largest member association against its smallest, and when the two met on Sunday in a World Cup Qualifier in Suzhou, the game pitted Guam’s group of students, US-based semi-pros and Guam-based players who juggle their footballing commitments with full-time jobs against China’s well-paid Super League stars.

And as if the balance needed tipping any further in China’s favour, their coach Li Tie had a few aces up his sleeve. As the favourites romped to a 7-0 win, three of his standout men were Ai Kesen, A Lan and Jiang Guangtai, better known to most readers as Elkeson, Alan Carvalho and Tyias Browning.

Ai Kesen, or Elkeson, played a key role in China’s first and scored their fifth. A Lan, or Alan Carvalho, came off the bench for his international debut to add the sixth and seventh. All the while Jiang Guangtai, or Tyias Browning, kept things tight at the back, not allowing Guam a sniff of a consolation.

The trio, born in Brazil in the case of Elkeson and Alan, and in Liverpool in the case of Browning, are three of five foreign born players that former Everton man Li Tie included in the China squad for this month’s qualifiers. The other two are former Arsenal youngster Nico Yennaris, now known as Li Ke, and another Brazilian, Fernandinho, who has taken the name Fei Nanduo.

All five are part of a clear strategy from the Chinese FA and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has stated his ambition for China to become a major footballing power. They are desperate to get to another World Cup, 20 years after their first and only appearance at a finals, and if the only way to achieve that is by drafting in players born outside Chinese territory, then so be it.

Soon, the current five could even be joined by more in the squad, as a growing band of players have been naturalised as Chinese citizens in the last two and a half years.

They are a mix of foreign-born players with Chinese ancestry – as is the case of Browning and Yennaris as well as recently naturalised young midfielders John Hou Saeter and Roberto Siucho, born in Norway and Peru, respectively – and of Brazilians who have been plying their trade in the Chinese Super League for long enough to qualify through FIFA’s eligibility rules. As well as Elkeson, Fernandinho and Alan, Aloisio and Ricardo Goulart were handed Chinese passports in 2020.

Li Tie, it seems, is open to using all of them. “I have never heard of any restrictions – three, four, five?” the South China Morning Post quoted him as saying in 2020. “For me, there are two criteria for recruiting naturalised players. The first is to be qualified to represent the Chinese team. The second very important point is that they are willing to represent the national team.”

His predecessor in the China managerial hotseat Marcello Lippi appears equally positive about the prospect – indeed it was Lippi who handed Elkeson his debut.

“I believe naturalisation can help all national teams,” he told Tencent Sports in October 2020. “All players with Chinese ancestry around the world can serve the country with what they learn in Europe. They are all important members of the team and are able to make contributions. It’s unfair to abandon them.”

There are, naturally, some reservations around the influx of foreign-born players into the national team among fans and pundits, and Lippi even said that when he was manager he was told not to pick too many players with no Chinese heritage. But so far, the ploy is bearing fruit.

China are currently in the midst of the first group stage in the AFC qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup and they are going well. Ten points from five games has put them second in Group A behind Syria. Elkeson, with four goals so far, is China’s third top scorer in the competition.

If they can maintain their current form, they will move into the next phase, which features two groups of six, from which four nations will book places at the World Cup.

Interestingly, this influx of foreign players into the national team – a very short-termist approach to achieving China’s World Cup objective – has come at a time when money is leaving the domestic league and fewer and fewer big foreign stars are moving there for mega fees.

In February, reigning Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu Suning folded after their shopping mall-owning parent company pulled the plug on all football-related activity owing to the financial fallout from the pandemic. That signalled an abrupt end to the half-decade when Chinese clubs spent huge transfer fees and wages to bring in the likes of Carlos Tevez, Hulk, Oscar, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez and Yannick Carrasco.

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READ: What happened to Dario Conca, once the world’s third highest-paid player?

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The new frugality domestically is also a result of intervention from the government, which has put a 100% tax on signings of foreign players. Instead, they want money to be used to invest in football academies. As Lippi added to Tencent: “I used to suggest more investments in teenage football and youth development. That should help raise many good players for the first team in the future.”

Yet while that youth development work is ongoing, China are turning to some of the stars attracted by the big spending of previous years to help them more immediately at international level. The rationale, one imagines, is that qualifying will give football’s popularity, and thus that youth development work, a significant boost.

The Chinese FA chairman Chen Xuyuan has said that he sees the naturalised players as a stopgap measure: “From the bottom of my heart, I hope it is just a small episode of a stage, let it pass. This will not become the norm, it will not become the theme, it will not be like some of our fans said that the 11 players in our country are all naturalised, which is absolutely impossible.”

But while the league is now looking more and more towards the distant future, Chen Xuyuan’s national team manager Li Tie clearly remains focused on the here and now. If China get to Qatar 2022, it will be a huge milestone for the country’s football development – but they will have some foreign-born players to thank.

By Joshua Law

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