Not many of us will have a chance to change our identity. For Ai Ke Sen, a 31-year-old Chinese striker, it took some time, but it worked eventually. Everyone wanted him to represent China, so Ai Ke Sen had to prove his ability to represent China. Maybe it was because of money considerations, or perhaps he feels like a real Chinese, but the Guangzhou Evergrande player wanted to do it nonetheless. So he renounced his Brazilian nationality, mumbled some words in Chinese and from now on he is no longer a Brazilian nicknamed Elkeson.
Elkeson is one of the most prolific scorers in the history of Chinese football. He scored 98 league goals in 148 appearances, only four goals away from the current all-time top scorer, Wu Lei. He is also the player who scored the most goals in a single season, 28 goals.
While he is unstoppable in the domestic league, the local players barely can find the net. In the last Asian Cup, while the leading teams thrashed the minnows, China didn’t manage to win by a significant margin, except a 3-0 win against The Philippines. China had to find a solution before the 2022 World Cup qualifiers will begin. Now they try a new idea – to call up Elkeson for Chinese national duty.
In past years, China tried unusual ideas to improve the national team. Two years ago, they sent the U-20 national team to a training camp in Germany, which was a complete failure and was abandoned after a few weeks due to political issues. More recently, the Chinese FA called up players to a close training camp, which took place in a military field with a strict discipline and lessons about patriotism. It didn’t help China too much. Although they reached the Asian Cup quarter-finals, China was still far behind the best teams in the continent. They were defeated 2-0 by South Korea at the group stage and 3-0 by Iran at the quarter-finals. In March they tried to improve in the annual China Cup but lost twice against Thailand and Uzbekistan.
After failing to improve the local players, China started to search for talent abroad. The first player they have found is Nico Yennaris, the former Arsenal and Brentford defensive midfielder. Yennaris, who was born in London to a Cypriot father and Chinese mother, first joined the Chinese Super League. Beijing Guoan bought him in January, and due to his origin, he was registered as a local player. Soon he got his first call-up to the national team, as he played during the China Cup, becoming the first naturalized player in the history of Chinese national team.
When Yennaris played, it was a sign that China is no longer to be composed only of locally trained players, but they will strengthen their squad at all costs. Elkeson was one of the first prospects to join the national team, alongside with another Brazilian top scorer, Ricardo Goulart. While having a Chinese descent can make the naturalization process easier, doing it as a foreigner is much more complicated. The main requirement is living in China for a certain amount of time, one that both Brazilians met easily, but to prove loyalty and integrate in China, they need to renounce their Brazilian nationality. Elkeson has done it and acquired his Chinese nationality. Elkeson has done that, and Goulart might follow his footsteps.
Not everyone likes the new ideas of Chinese football leaders. Zhan Jun, a famous football commentator, wrote in his Weibo account “I don’t know how fans who care about Chinese football are feeling right now? I can’t get over it.” The 16 million people that follow him may care or not, but it seems that China is going to be similar to every other national team in the world. On the one hand, people care that the players that represent their nation will be locals, and on the other side, people want to see individuals who are good enough, no matter where they were born.
The destiny of China in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers will be exciting. Aside from any surprises, they will qualify to the third round and will be among the last 12 teams that compete for the final four spots. Their opening match against the Maldives in September will be the first chance to see whether the new era in Chinese football is also bringing a different performance.