To China with love: Footballers join the team
Marcello Lippi gave his second Chinese national team coaching career a decent start with two friendly match victories against the Philippines and Tajikistan in the past week in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.
Despite the ordinary profile of the opponents, the results and the team’s devoted attitude were considered a positive start of the national team’s journey toward the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.
History was also made when Beijing Guo’an’s defensive midfielder Li Ke started for China in its 2-0 victory over the Philippines last Friday. The 26-year-old of mixed Cypriot-Chinese ancestry became the first naturalized professional to wear a Chinese national jersey.
Naturalized players are newcomers to China’s top-tier football league from this season. They are of Chinese descent or have immediate family members who are Chinese, but used to be foreign nationals, playing and training abroad.
London-born Li, previously known as Nicholas Harry Yennaris, began his career in the academy of English Premier League side Arsenal, and represented England at the U17 and U19 levels.
He was playing on loan for English third-tier side Wycombe Wanderers before being transferred to Beijing Guo’an in January. He then became naturalized as a Chinese citizen to represent the country of his mother’s birth.
Li’s Beijing teammate, Hou Yongyong, also a naturalized player, got his Chinese citizenship before the start of the season.
He made his debut during Beijing’s CFA Super Cup clash against Shanghai SIPG in Suzhou in February. Other naturalized players in the Chinese Super League include Shanghai Greenland Shenhua midfielder Qian Jiegei. Previously known as Alexander N’Doumbou, Qian is of Gabonese-Chinese ancestry.
Having naturalized players in the national team and top-tier league clubs is common in some Asian countries including Japan, but it’s new for China. It’s also considered as a sign the country’s sports authority is taking firm steps to help China advance to the World Cup finals again after 20 years.
In March, the Chinese Football Association issued a notice saying that foreign players naturalized to play in the CSL should be able to recognize the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem. They should also study the country’s language, history and culture.
The Chinese national team muddled through the earlier part of 2019 with some embarrassing performances including two straight losses to Thailand and Uzbekistan during the China Cup tournament in March. Guangzhou Evergrande manager Fabio Cannavaro was interim head coach at that time after the departure of Lippi.
World Cup-winning coach Lippi managed the Chinese national team since 2016, and confirmed his departure in January after China’s elimination by Iran in the quarter-finals of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
After the unsuccessful coaching experience in the China Cup, Cannavaro decided to stay back with Evergrande, while the CFA turned back to 71-year-old Lippi, who was offered a salary the veteran coach described as “irresistible.” The salary is partially covered by CSL powerhouse Evergrande, a club Lippi coached from 2012 to 2014.
Lippi’s task for his second nomination is clear — to lead China to the final stage of the 2022 World Cup. It remains unclear how big a contribution naturalized players will make in the bid.
Li played for 55 minutes in China’s match against the Philippines before being substituted by Chi Zhongguo. Wu Xi’s opener in the 14th and Zhang Xizhe’s goal in the 54th sealed the victory for China.
As the defensive midfielder in the 4-3-3 format, Li was playing in the position previously taken by 39-year-old national team captain and Guangzhou Evergrande player Zheng Zhi.
“He is merging into the team well and is very dedicated,” Lippi said after the match.
“I’m very proud and honored to play in this jersey,” Li said after the match. “I’m happy with my performance as the team has been training together for just a few days. We had good passes, and everything will improve in the future.”
Li said the first thing he did when starting to play in the CSL was to learn the Chinese anthem.
At the beginning of China’s match against the Philippines, Li was seen singing the anthem.
“I having been learning it, bit by bit,” said Li. “I’m still trying to remember all my teammates’ names, which is not easy. But football is a different language. I hope it’s easier on the pitch and we can let football talk.”
Li admitted that he had not watched much Chinese football before his naturalization, but paid homage to Lippi.
“The coach has been nice to me,” said Li.
“He put me in a position I’m used to. He is an experienced coach with a rich football background. I will surely learn a lot from him.”
The two friendly match wins assured China the position as a seeded team in the upcoming draw of the World Cup Asian qualifiers. What role will Li play in the national team? Will he be joined by more naturalized players?
These are questions more likely to be considered by the CFA rather than Lippi.
The CFA is seeing some changes itself.
A CFA term-changing preparatory group was formed last month. Shanghai SIPG club president Chen Xuyuan was named leader of the group, making him the hottest candidate for new CFA president. The decision will be made through an election at the CFA congress later this month.
Unlike previous CFA presidents who usually had a strong sports background, Chen, the current board chairman of SIPG Group, is experienced in the management of state-owned enterprises.
But Chen has not been a big fan of naturalization.
In an earlier interview, Chen said Chinese football should depend more on its own players rather than “taking too much of a short-cut” when he talked about the possibility of CSL defending champion SIPG signing naturalized players.
“Personally I am not very fond of the idea of buying too many naturalized players. But if a player is of Chinese descent, he can still be developed,” said Chen.
But SIPG’s Brazilian striker Elkeson has been linked to naturalization in the past few weeks, although he has no Chinese ancestry.
The 29-year-old told some domestic media that he was willing to become a naturalized citizen of China and play for the national team.
Elkeson started his career in China with Evergrande in 2013. He transferred to SIPG in 2016 and has become one of the veteran foreign players in the CSL. According to FIFA regulations, a foreigner having lived and played for over five years in a country can be naturalized as long as he has not represented his mother country in certain level international matches before. Elkeson meets that qualification.
The Brazilian is in the last year of his contract with SIPG.
If he is naturalized, SIPG might have to prepare a fat long-term contract for him for the sake of the country.
There might be other problems with the naturalization of players like Elkeson, such as salary. The CFA has set different salary caps for domestic and foreign players.
Elkeson will surely not want a pay cut with naturalization. Some negotiation will be expected among SIPG, the CFA and Elkeson himself.