Naturalization can't replace 'plodding' work of youth training in long term
With naturalization now a legal solution in China for some soccer players, pundits have called for more consistent investment in the country's own youth training for long-term success.
The appearance of midfielder Nico Yennaris in a Chinese Super League match representing Beijing Guoan on Saturday made history as the London-born player became the first naturalized talent to be eligible for action in the country's top domestic league as a Chinese citizen.
Yennaris, whose mother is Chinese, had to cede his British citizenship to complete the transfer in February from Brentford, a West London club in England's third tier, to Guoan as a domestic import, because China doesn't allow dual citizenship.
His CSL debut in Guoan's 1-0 win over crosstown rival Beijing Renhe came after the Chinese Football Association issued a new regulation regarding the transfer, registration and management of naturalized imports on Friday, opening the gate for a flurry of activity by CSL clubs to identify and introduce foreign-born talent to raise the level of competition.
Some other major CSL clubs, such as seven-time league champion Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai Shenhua and Shandong Luneng, have also completed, or are in the process of completing, formalities to validate their naturalized players.
Under the regulations, a club must provide proof of a player's change of nationality and Chinese passport before the player can be registered as a domestic import.
The regulation also says naturalized players should learn the culture and history of China, its national anthem and Mandarin.
Yennaris, 25, who goes by the Chinese name Li Ke on his new passport, said it's critical for him to blend in off the field to be able to deliver during competition.
He said he has been learning the national anthem in Chinese "for the last few months since I knew I was going to come in", he said. He was seen on television singing the national anthem before the Saturday league match.
"We know it is very important," he said. "A teacher printed it on a sheet for me to learn. ... Communication with the team is good. They understand I am learning Chinese now so they are patient with me."
The CFA's allowing clubs to introduce overseas talent with Chinese background was interpreted in the media as part of a process to eventually promote them into the Chinese national program for an attempt to qualify the country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The long absence of China, the world's second-largest economy, from the marquee FIFA event since its first and last appearance in 2002 prompted the central government to launch a national soccer reform effort in 2015.
It is based on expanding grassroots participation, professionalizing league operations and enhancing the national squad to advance to the World Cup again.
Observers say there's nothing wrong with the naturalization effort at the club level, but the country needs to focus on the real business of cultivating its own young talent to build solid international prowess.
"Naturalization might be a quick fix for a club at the league level. But how big a difference they can make on the international stage is up in the air," said Gong Lei, former coach of CSL club Beijing Renhe.
"Sustainably, we need to stay committed to the basics of developing our youth system, from school campuses up, and have quality tests of homegrown players in the league."
Xu Yang, a former Chinese national midfielder, said the naturalization policy shouldn't cover up the real problems.
"It might help in the short term, but if we aspire to become a world soccer power decades from now, we need to start by plodding at the grassroots level by offering enough facilities, coaching and funding to nurture youth players, generation after generation."