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Coach Li adamant he's on board with naturalization

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-13 09:01
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Naturalized player Ai Kesen keeps his eyes on the ball during a January Team China training session as Li Tie watches on in the background. Head coach Li on Saturday said he wants more naturalized players to choose from in the wake of speculation he is not keen on the policy. OSPORTS

Team China coach Li Tie insists he wants more naturalized players to choose from amid speculation that he is not a fan of the controversial Chinese Football Association policy.

Questions had been raised over Li's commitment to the CFA strategy of boosting the national-team talent pool with foreign-born players after forward Ai Kesen, aka Elkeson, was the only naturalized player selected for Team China's March training camp in Dubai.

However, in an interview with China Central Television on Saturday, Li endorsed the policy.

"Without doubt, naturalized players can enhance the strength of the national team," he said. "Personally speaking, I hope to see more naturalized players join the national team.

"What's more important, though, is that naturalized players have a strong desire to play for Team China and try their best on the pitch. The door of the national squad is open to all players, including naturalized ones."

The comments should help dispel the notion that Li is not keen on naturalization.

Both the policy's suitability and effectiveness have come in for criticism over the last year.

The additions of Brazil-born Ai Kesen and England-born Nicholas Yennaris, known as Li Ke-the only naturalized players to pull on the red of Team China to date-have failed to have the desired effect on the nation's World Cup qualification chances.

The policy was first implemented under the tenure of coach Marcello Lippi. After succeeding the Italian in January, Li began his reign by controversially dropping Beijing Guo'an's Yennaris in favor of four uncapped Wuhan Zall players for the Dubai training camp.

Given Li had been Wuhan's head coach before being appointed to the national team role, accusations of favoritism followed.

The naturalization project suffered another setback last month when Guangzhou Evergrande's Fernandinho was fined 3 million yuan ($430,000) for missing a chunk of his new team's recent training camp in Dubai, where club officials were unable to establish the 27-year-old's whereabouts for several days.

The Brazil-born striker, who has played in the Chinese Super League since 2015, is reportedly set to become the latest player to join China's naturalized ranks. He has since apologized for the breach of discipline and vowed to "become an example on and off the field".

The episode was seized upon by detractors of the naturalization policy as evidence that some imports are signing up purely for financial reasons and are less-than committed to the national cause on the pitch.

In an apparent riposte to those views, CFA president Chen Xuyuan pointedly singled out Ai Kesen for praise after visiting the Team China squad following the completion of the players' two-week medical quarantine in Sanya, Hainan province. The quarantine was part of local COVID-19 pandemic prevention measures upon the squad's return from Dubai earlier this month.

Beijing Youth Daily reported that, during a 15-minute speech, Chen urged the players to keep pushing their limits and become role models for Chinese soccer, with Ai Kesen earning special mention for his performances in World Cup qualifiers and his general work-rate and professionalism in Dubai.

The CFA president added that he hoped Ai Kesen would be a great example to all current and soon-to-be naturalized players.

"We have finished the training camp with the national team. And the past few months have been very difficult for China and the rest of the world," said Ai Kesen, Team China's first naturalized player without Chinese ancestry, on his Weibo account after completing the quarantine.

"Everyone in the team has been together as a big family, and we finished the training outstandingly in such a difficult time. After the 14-day quarantine, we now can return home safely and we will continue training at our own clubs. Thanks to all the brothers, coaches and staff in the national team. Unite and we are stronger."

The CFA may be sticking to its guns, however concerns remain that an over-reliance on foreign-born players could damage the development of homegrown talents.

"Li Tie has said that naturalization is not the savior of Chinese soccer," retired Chinese international Fan Zhiyi told media last month. "That also shows our young domestic talent that they need to work hard to earn their spot or it will be taken by naturalized players."

In the eyes of fans, the only true vindication of the policy is qualification for the World Cup.

China has only played at one World Cup finals-in 2002 in Japan and South Korea-with a second appearance at Qatar 2022 now looking unlikely.

With four first-round qualifiers to play, China is eight points adrift of Group A leader Syria and only leads third-place Philippines on goal difference. The eight group winners and four best second-place finishers will enter a second phase of Asian qualifying.

The next qualifiers had been set to kick off in March and then June. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Asian Football Confederation to postpone those matches and it's still not clear when qualifying will resume.

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