China’s Soccer Push Takes a New Tack: Naturalizing Foreign Players Express News
A London-born midfielder emerged Thursday as the latest example of China’s occasionally bumpy effort to become a force in international soccer.
The midfielder, Nico Yennaris, a 26-year-old with little pedigree in Britain, became the first foreign-born player to be called up by China’s national team. China recently adopted a policy of naturalizing talented players with links to China in the hopes that foreign-born talent might improve the routinely underachieving squad, which has qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002.
[Sign up for Rory Smith’s weekly newsletter on world soccer: Rory Smith on Soccer.]
Yennaris, who is eligible to play for China through his mother’s heritage, gave up his British citizenship when he signed with Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super League in January.
Born in the same section of East London as David Beckham, Yennaris rose through Arsenal’s youth ranks and played four times for the first team. He played 157 games for the second-tier Brentford before embarking on his Chinese odyssey. He has scored two goals in eight games for Beijing Guoan, and he talked before his selection of helping the national team end its two-decade absence from the World Cup.
China has spent heavily on soccer since President Xi Jinping, an ardent fan of the sport, made it a national priority in 2015. That led to huge investment to build soccer academies and to hire foreign coaches and other experts. Until recently, though, the project did not include an overseas talent hunt — a technique used by teams from the United States to Europe — to improve the national team’s fortunes on the field. That idea began to gain traction around the time of China’s exit from this year’s Asian Cup, where it was eliminated in the quarterfinals, 3-0, by Iran, the Asian powerhouse.
Though Yennaris, known as Li Ke in China, was the first foreign-born player on China’s senior national team roster, he was not the only one persuaded to give up his nationality. In January, Beijing Guoan added John Hou Saeter, who represented Norway on the youth level before switching his allegiance to China, the country of his mother’s birth. Another player, Tyias Browning, 25, who represented England at the youth level, is now with the Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande and is going through the naturalization process.
Yennaris could make his debut for China in friendly games against the Philippines and Tajikistan next month. The matches are part of China’s preparations for the qualifying rounds of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the next chance for the country to appear on soccer’s biggest stage.
The tactic of selecting foreign-born players, and perhaps even foreigners without Chinese heritage — there has been speculation that a clutch of Brazilians who have spent years in China’s top league could be next — is not without risk, and the national soccer federation has issued several directives on handling the transitions.
In March, the Chinese Football Association issued detailed guidance to clubs that included demands that teams teach incoming players to be patriotic and educate them about the values of the ruling Communist Party. Clubs were ordered to produce monthly reports on the athletes’ thoughts and performances.
“The grass-roots organization of the Communist Party of China, which covers football clubs, will be in charge of educating such footballers on the history and basic theory of the party,” said the C.F.A. directive, which was posted on the association’s website.
“Football clubs must have specially assigned staff to track the thinking of such footballers and their performance in training and games,” it added. “A written report on these matters must be filed to the association each month.”
One of the first tasks for players is to learn the national anthem, which is played before every league game. Yennaris has been practicing it, as have others, including overseas recruits like Paulinho, the former national team player for Brazil. (Because he played for Brazil at the senior level, soccer regulations will not allow Paulinho to switch his national allegiance.)
China’s recent effort to become a serious soccer nation has taken some curious turns, as the country grapples with creating a team capable of performing at the highest level while retaining characteristics championed by the central government.
Last year, for example, clubs scrambled to honor a semiofficial edict that banned visible tattoos during games. That led to the sight of players’ wearing bandages or long sleeves to cover up any offending body art. Further chaos occurred when top-division teams were told to release some of their most promising young players at midseason so they could attend military-style training sessions.