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Soccer: China turns eye to diaspora as new league season gets underway

HONG KONG (Reuters) - After more disappointment on the international stage and with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon, Chinese football is shifting focus yet again in another attempt to join the global elite -- this time with talent developed elsewhere.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) season kicks off on Friday with the sport in a state of flux following the national team’s limp exit from January’s Asian Cup and Marcello Lippi bowing out as coach.

As the Italian shuffled into retirement he left behind an aging team in need of a complete overhaul if President Xi Jinping’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup are to be realised in Qatar in less than four years’ time.

“This is a problem and can be a problem for China in the next few years,” World Cup winner Lippi said during the Asian Cup, where his team surrendered meekly to Iran in the quarter-finals.

“At the moment these players are 32-, 33-years-old and there aren’t too many younger players. Maybe the younger players don’t have the same experience these players have.”

China’s squad, with an average age of 29, was the oldest at the Asian Cup but with a lack of quality in the domestic ranks CSL clubs are attempting to use naturalisation as a way to improve the player pool for Lippi’s eventual successor.

A lack of development work at the turn of the millennium has led to a shortage of candidates to replace stalwarts such as Zheng Zhi and Gao Lin, leaving Chinese football to cast the net overseas for players who are eligible through parentage.

Norway-born John Hou Saeter -- known in China as Hou Yongyong and who qualifies to play for China through his mother -- became the first such player to make his debut for a CSL side at the weekend.

The 21-year-old midfielder was introduced from the bench during Beijing Guoan’s 2-0 Chinese Super Cup defeat to league champions Shanghai SIPG.


He was joined at the Chinese FA Cup holders by former Arsenal midfielder Nico Yennaris, who also claimed Chinese citizenship through his mother after moving to the Chinese Super League from English second tier side Brentford in January.

Both Saeter and 25-year-old Yennaris have secured their Chinese passports while others are embarking on similar moves.

Guangzhou Evergrande announced the capture of 24-year-old former England youth international Tyias Browning from Everton earlier this month, while 22-year-old Roberto Siucho from Peru’s Universitario club also signed for the seven-time champions.

Both players are eligible to switch nationality to China due to family connections.

The quartet are expected to be the first of a stream of players with Chinese heritage to consider changing allegiance to the land of their forebears, which does not permit citizens to hold dual nationality.

Naturalisation is a tactic that has been used with great effect by an increasing number of Asian nations, with basketball-mad Philippines turning itself into a force in South East Asia using a similar approach while Qatar won the Asian Cup with a squad predominantly born overseas.

“If China can get some good players, two or three better players who can make a difference, a leader or two, then it can work,” Kwok Ka-ming, the Chinese Football Association’s director of coach education, told Reuters.

“But we need to see how these players perform. It’s short term, it’s not long term and China’s a big country. We need to be patient and wait for other things to have an effect and for the other players coming through.

“What we really need is more coaches working with the young players and that’s something China is working on. But we need to be patient.”

Editing by Peter Rutherford