Can ever-growing naturalised imports deliver China PR a World Cup appearance?

Alan Carvalho enjoyed a fine international debut for China PR as he came off the bench to score two goals in a 7-0 win over Guam in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

A nation of 1.4 billion. One with a domestic league that has attracted some of the best talents in the world, and clubs that are now synonymous with Asian football.

But to say that China PR have been a disappointment in international football is a huge understatement.

Their 2002 match remains their only appearance in a FIFA World Cup when they left South Korea without scoring a goal in the group stage. Their outings in AFC Asian Cups are nothing to write home about either, with two runners-up finishes their best achievement despite being considered title contenders for almost five decades now.

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An ageing squad, little youth development, and a lack of vision from those at the helm of the sport have put Chinese football into a large quagmire. They had the oldest squad at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, while eight of the 11 starters in their last 2022 World Cup qualifier before the recent resumption of play -- a disastrous 2-1 loss to Syria -- were over 30 years old.

That defeat in Nov. 2019 had China trailing Syria by eight points in Group A of the Asian World Cup qualifiers and led to the resignation of legendary manager Marcelo Lippi for a second time in ten months. Lippi first stepped down after their Asian Cup exit, giving way to compatriot Fabio Cannavaro's brief, but unsuccessful, interim shift.

Former midfielder Li Tie -- best known for his time in the Premier League with Everton -- is the man currently assigned with the task of turning things around for Team Dragon, and he got off to a winning start Sunday when his side cruised to a 7-0 win over Guam.

China are in second place with ten points after five matches, but Li will still be expecting more improvement from his players in their remaining three games to progress to the next phase of qualification either as a group winner or one of the best second-placed teams.

China's attempt to revive their World Cup hopes may hinge on the unprecedented number of naturalised stars in their roster.

English-born Nico Yennaris and Tyias Browning, as well as Brazilian-born Elkeson, Alan Carvalho and Fernandinho, have all been called up by Li for the crucial fixtures.

Is naturalisation the way forward for Chinese football?

Many countries have turned to foreign nationals for success. From the South American core that led Italy to World Cup glory in 1934 to the great Alfredo Di Stefano who played for three different countries, there is no shortage of naturalised footballers who made a name for themselves away from their nations of birth.

More recently, reigning Asian champions Qatar and Philippines walked similar paths to improve their squads, making use of FIFA's eligibility rules that allow a player to assume a new nationality through ancestry or by having lived in the adopted country for at least five years.

Until recently, China has not turned to foreigners to bolster their national team. History was created when Arsenal youth product Yennaris, whose mother is of Chinese origin, became the first naturalised player to represent the country in 2019.

Guangzhou FC's Brazilian striker Elkeson, who won four Chinese Super League and two AFC Champions League titles during his time in China, was the next to tread the path becoming the first player without Chinese ancestry to pull on the jersey. He marked his debut with a brace in a 5-0 win over Maldives in their opening match of the current qualifiers.

However, China's initial outings were underwhelming even with Elkeson and Yennaris in their ranks. Getting off to an impressive start netting a total of 12 goals past Maldives and Guam in the first two matches, China's campaign soon went off track with a goalless draw against the the Philippines' Azkals and a defeat to Syria.

That did not stall the Chinese Football Association's efforts to acquire citizenship for more foreign-born players with the likes of Browning, Aloisio, Alan, Fernandinho and Ricardo Goulart getting their Chinese passports over the past months and becoming eligible to play international football for the country.

Both Browning and Alan impressed as they won their first caps against Guam, with the former playing the full 90 minutes while the latter netted two goals after coming on as a substitute.

China have a lot riding on the World Cup qualifiers

Failing to get out of their group in the second round of the qualifiers would be disastrous for Chinese football. To do that in the middle of a naturalisation experiment, with naturalised players potentially being fielded in half of the outfield positions, will be adding insult to injury.

The number of naturalised players on the squad has not been popular with the Chinese public or pundits. Even top CFA officials have said publicly that there should be a limit on the number of such players in the squad and hoping that it does not become a norm.

The next few weeks could prove to have a huge impact on the future of football in China. If the national team, powered by their naturalised players, can get themselves out of the rut and progress in the qualifiers, the policy will stand justified, at least for the time being.