China is likely to turn to an array of foreign Super League stars to kickstart its World Cup qualification bid for Qatar 2022.
During the weekend, Brazil-born Elkeson was included in coach Marcello Lippi’s squad for the qualifying group next month, according to the Asian Football Confederation.
The decision ended weeks of speculation that the 30-year-old striker had been granted Chinese citizenship under the five-year residency requirements laid down by FIFA, the world’s football, or soccer, governing body.
Still, if Elkeson is selected to play in the opening qualifier against the Maldives on September 10, he would be the first player without Chinese heritage to represent his adopted country.
Since China has a dearth of international class players, Lippi has decided to look at the Super League’s foreign legion and Elkeson is up there with the best of the best.
He joined Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013 and helped the club to the Asian Champions League title that year and again in 2015. He then went on to win three consecutive Super League crowns and was the competition’s top scorer in 2013 and 2014.
Two years later, he moved to Shanghai SIPG and was part of the squad that won the Super League championship for the first time in 2018 before returning to Guangzhou last month for a second spell. He will reportedly earn US$11.2 million-a-year.
Elkeson also said at the time he was prepared to become a Chinese citizen in order to play in the World Cup.
“I might consider a formal invitation. If the conditions are right, then why not?” he told Oriental Sports Daily earlier this year.
Moreover, his selection could be the start of a trend for perennial under-achievers China, who have begun naturalizing overseas players despite the misgivings of many fans.
The most populous nation on the planet has only reached the World Cup once before, in 2002, but under football-loving President Xi Jinping, it hopes to host and even win the tournament.
In June, London-born Nico Yennaris made his debut for Lippi’s side. The former Arsenal academy midfielder’s inclusion was widely welcomed since he is half-Chinese and is known as Li Ke.
Along with Elkeson, he could be followed by fellow China-based Brazilians Ricardo Goulart and Fernando. They are both reportedly set to be naturalized, along with English defender Tyias Browning.
Although other nations, notably World Cup hosts Qatar, call up players born in other countries, China has not made the move until now.
Naturally, it has sparked controversy with football commentator Zhan Jun hinting at public anger. Writing to his 16 million followers on the Twitter-like Weibo, Shan said: “Sigh, don’t know how the fans who care about Chinese football are feeling?
“I can’t get over it,” he added, in a post which drew thousands of comments.
– additional reporting AFP