Mercenaries or saviours: China’s problem with naturalised football players

by Olivia Chen

On 11 November 2021, the Chinese men’s football team drew 1-1 against Oman, ending its chances of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. It was a must-win game for the Dragon’s Team, yet the result was hardly surprising: they haven’t featured in the competition since their maiden appearance in 2002. 

China surely had a chance of winning. The game was in their favour with a one-goal lead and constant threats to the Omani defence. After that, China made a series of controversial substitutions, including the decision to take off Aloísio Gonçalves. Aloísio is a former Brazilian player who was naturalised to play for China as part of the plan to reinvigorate President Xi Jinping’s “football dream”.

Without Aloísio on the pitch, Oman obtained the edge to score an equaliser. Amidst supporters’ overwhelming distress with the team, Aloísio was the exception to be greeted with compliments. Fans amazed by his unparalleled commitment flooded his social media account with messages of gratitude.

Perversely, this was the first game to include Aloísio in the starting line-up. The former Brazilian only featured as a substitute in two of the previous four qualifiers. The team’s complex relationship with naturalised players is evident, if barely vocal. Some accused the manager of discriminating against these athletes with different origins. However, it is probably not entirely the manager’s fault.

The level of political meddling is a distinctively Chinese feature in sports. “China has such a black and white definition of what’s Chinese and what is not. This actually challenges the notion of what being Chinese is in a very public way,” said Cameron Wilson, the founding editor of Wild East Football, quoted by CNN.

As China does not allow dual nationality, the players must give up their existing citizenship in order to play as Chinese citizens. Moreover, a directive issued by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in 2019 went further as it ordered all naturalised players to be educated on “the history of the Communist Party” to cultivate their patriotic feelings. 

Even after overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles, the team still seemed reluctant to put these integrated players on the pitch. After all, for Xi Jinping, the most famous advocate of nationalism in this country, the goal is always to develop grassroots Chinese talents. The naturalisation scheme, pioneered by Marcello Lippi, the former national team manager, is deemed merely a shortcut to qualify for the World Cup.

Consequently, from the authorities’ perspective, it must be humiliating to publicly admit that a country as populous as China cannot select 11 competent homegrown players and needs to hire ‘mercenaries’ in order to win. China invested so much money acquiring foreign stars to boost the team’s performance and raise their national pride. Yet, at the same time, they are afraid of putting their national identity to the test. This is precisely the absurd and paradoxical mindset of nationalism in Chinese football.

Feeling genuinely disappointed by the national team’s performance in the past year, it is questionable whether the naturalised footballers are still willing to compete for the team in future Qatar qualifiers. Some have already made up their minds. Elkeson refused the national team’s call by saying that he had contracted Covid, while simultaneously posting videos on Instagram of him training on a beach. Fernando returned for a family matter when he was waiting to change planes to join the rest of the team. 

Prior to the game against Japan on 27 January, Aloísio openly blasted CFA for logistic mismanagement and being disrespectful towards players. Spectators wonder whether this is a sign of intensified tensions between naturalised players and the higher authority. Regardless of the backstories, China conceded two easy goals to Japan, an opponent they haven’t beaten for 24 years. Again, it’s time to pronounce that classic quote once more:

‘There is not much time left for Team China.’

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