On February 13, when 20 year-old John Hou Saeter received his temporary Chinese ID in Beijing, he made history as the nation’s first ‘naturalised’ footballer.
The Norwegian, who has Chinese ancestry through his maternal side, was signed by Chinese Super League (CSL) club Beijing Guoan earlier this year as a candidate for naturalisation – a process that renders him eligible to play for the Chinese national soccer team. Signed at the same time as Hou Saeter was British-born Nicholas Harry Yennaris – he has a Chinese mother too – who is also receiving Chinese citizenship. He arrived in Beijing from Arsenal’s youth team. Guangzhou Evergrande, a previous winner of the CSL and the Asian Champions League, announced that British-born Tyias Browning would follow suit – just a week after Hou Saeter’s naturalisation.
With other clubs making similar moves, the signings of naturalised players is the newest trend in Chinese football, Beijing Youth Daily reports.
So why – after years of showing the red card to naturalisation applications – did the Chinese Football Association (CFA) suddenly change its mind? An obvious factor is the lacklustre performance of the Chinese national team, seen again at the recent AFC Asian Cup. With the oldest average age in the tournament, the Chinese team was knocked out in the quarterfinals by a 0-3 loss to Iran. “This is a team with no future,” was the dismissive verdict of Shandong Business Daily.
Only three players in the entire squad were younger than 23 and newspapers have questioned (the then) head coach Marcello Lippi’s decision to rely on the veterans. But Soccer News defended the World Cup winning coach, saying he has tried to favour youth picks. The Italian had promoted a number of U23 players to the national team following its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But after experimenting for about a year Lippi ditched the plan, frustrated that the younger players weren’t up to it.
China’s clubs have been slow to bring younger talent through the ranks, preferring the quicker fix of buying international stars. As a strategy it can lead to more immediate success and bigger crowds at matches for the best teams. But it leaves slimmer pickings for the national side, which has fewer top-ranked local players to choose from.
Will the new ‘naturalisation’ policy bring a better chance for local talent? One argument is that the newcomers will raise standards across the game, which can only be good for the professional league and the national side. But there are dissenting views. One is that the clubs want to naturalise the foreign signings so that they are exempt from rules restricting the number of international stars on the pitch. In this regard the new policy could actually mean fewer opportunities for locally-born players to get into professional teams, which is hardly the best outcome for developing homegrown talent.
A steady flow of naturalised signings might serve as a disincentive to clubs to put more focus on younger players from China too.
Chen Xuyuan, chairman of CSL champions Shanghai SIPG, is one of the critics, describing naturalisation as similar to taking “a short-cut”. Nonetheless, the decision to welcome overseas players is recognition that Chinese football’s youth policy has failed to deliver. How can that be in a country of 1.4 billion people, you might wonder? China generally excels at winning golds at the Olympics, so why is it so poor at rearing young footballers?
Few (if any) CSL clubs have a mature youth development system. The German Football Association requires that professional clubs have youth training centres and that they field 10 youth teams from under-10s to under-19s, for instance. Although the CFA did stipulate a required number of youth teams at each CSL club, it never required that these teams were registered under their owners. Smaller clubs, fearing that the costs of the younger teams would take up too much of their funding, co-opted school teams to represent them in the designated youth leagues. Pundits say these kids never got much professional training and they were routinely sent back to their school campuses after the matches were over.
The football association has now mandated that each CSL side has to have at least five youth teams (U13, U14, U15, U17, U19) and that they must be registered under the club itself (i.e. no more borrowing teams from schools). Clubs that fail to meet this requirement won’t be allowed to compete in the league from this season onwards.
The diktats are seen by some fans as a step in the right direction. However, the new policy on youth teams only standardises the number of teams each club should have: it doesn’t mention key areas like minimum levels of investment.
At the moment budgets for up-and-coming players are low. According to PwC, total spending of all sixteen CSL clubs reached Rmb11 billion ($1.63 billion) in 2016, of which 67% was staff costs (weighted heavily towards the salaries of foreign players and coaches). Only 5% was spent on youth systems.
“What many clubs don’t understand is that teenagers are the future of Chinese football, not foreign players,” chided Hansum, a specialist blogger on Sohu.com.
Indeed, while the Brazilian footballer Oscar reportedly earns a weekly wage of £400,000 ($523,756) in Shanghai, many wannabe stars are putting up with sparse and outdated training facilities. That leads the critics of the game to describe the current phase of Chinese football as “the era of falsified prosperity” as clubs pour billions of yuan into the transfer market at the expense of under-resourcing their youth training programmes.
Japan, arguably one of the most successful Asian teams in world soccer, also has a history of naturalisation. But the naturalised players were never Japan’s biggest stars. While various footballers from Brazil have become eligible to play for the national side over the last 20 years, Japan’s World Cup success (seen in the light of China’s failures) lies in its productive youth system, reckons the Beijing Youth Daily.
A source within the CFA acknowledged some of that when he told the same newspaper: “Naturalisation is one of many attempts at Chinese football reform. It is not a rush for success, and certainly is not tied to future World Cup qualifiers.”
The remark is a reference to China’s repeated failures to qualify for the World Cup (it made it to that tournament’s finals only once, in 2002, when it didn’t score a goal). The country’s football-loving leader Xi Jinping has made plain that he wants China not only to field a team capable of World Cup qualification but also to do the country proud if China wins the right to host the tournament in 2030 or 2034.
One of the unknowns for the naturalised players is how they will be received in the local game. Fans will be won over at club level, but it will be interesting to see if the imports are equally accepted as members of the national team. In the past China’s media has been dismissive about how other countries have accepted immigrant players into their national sides, although that might change if the newcomers bring success to the Chinese team.
But disappointingly the new era got off to an underwhelming start last weekend when the clubs were ordered not to pick the new arrivals. None of them made their debuts in the CSL, with the Shanghai Observer blaming confusion over the naturalisation policy at the CFA for the “complete disorder” and “chaos”.
Reports in the domestic media said the newcomers had been barred for the first two games of the season whilst the CFA finalised the rules on the new signings.
There was a more welcome piece of news a few days earlier, when top English Premiership Club Manchester City made its own investment in the next generation of Chinese players. The team’s owner City Football Group (CFG) announced that alongside UBTECH and China Sports Capital it had acquired third-tier club Sichuan Jiuniu, with a plan to get it promoted to the CSL within five years. Following the acquisition, CFG will be providing technical support on youth training. “We will make sure the teenage players of Sichuan Jiuniu receive the same excellent training as seen at Manchester City and other CFG owned clubs [the company also owns teams in the US, Australia, Japan, Spain and Uruguay]. We are a big family sharing resources and techniques with each other,” said CEO Ferran Soriano.
There is no guarantee Sichuan Jiuniu’s youth system will turn into a fruitful one under the supervision of CFG. But back in Manchester there have been successes, including midfield dynamo Phil Foden, who joined the club aged eight and broke into City’s first team this season (he is also tipped to win a full England cap having enjoyed success at the U17 and U21 levels).
CFG’s Chengdu investment will cheer the optimists: should it prove a success it could create a benchmark for other Chinese clubs to emulate.
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