Back to the future

By Henry Church Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/23 17:48:40

Generations past may hold key to sporting success

RCD Espanyol striker Wu Lei runs with the ball during the La Liga match against Real Sociedad on May 18 in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: VCG

When Western sports bodies think of China, it's safe to assume that the population is viewed more in terms of yuan signs than potential recruits. That's not to say they don't want their own Yao Ming. They would love such a totem, of course, but it's just that the hope with China is to build fandom rather than athletes.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has begun to offer a few glimmers of hope to the contrary. Wu Lei, the youngest ever player and record goal scorer in the CSL, moved to Spain's top soccer division in January and he carried on where he left off winning the league and golden boot in China last year. Wu fired the goal that secured Espanyol's return to Europe last weekend, ensuring a first Europa League appearance in a decade, before he was stripped of his shirt and carried off the pitch by the fans.

While Wu flies the flag for athletes born in China right now, the CSL also offers another glimpse into a future that all Western sports leagues might want to buy into. This year the Chinese Football Association decided to allow clubs to naturalize players who were born abroad but whose heritage would allow them to play for China under FIFA's rules - a Chinese-born grandparent or closer.

So far that has seen a handful of players move to China to abandon their previous passport and adopt Chinese nationality - the People's Republic of China is one of a number of countries that does not recognize dual citizenship. These include Nico Yennaris (now known as Li Ke) and John Hou Saeter (aka Hou Yongyong) who both moved to Beijing Guoan. Former Arsenal trainee and Brentford player Yennaris has been instrumental in the capital club's rise to the top of the league since the season started in March. They have a perfect record after 10 rounds of fixtures, smashing the previous record of six. 

New model

Assuming Guoan win the league this season - and nothing is certain just a third of the way into it, although they did pass their first test of beating Guangzhou Evergrande away - then this is a model that more will follow. Some teams, seven-time-in-a-row champions Evergrande included, have begun to look into the possibility of naturalizing their own players. Fabio Cannavaro's side have two such footballers on their books already, former Everton player Ty Browning and the Peruvian under-21 international Roberto Siucho.

Neither is naturalized yet, with Siucho actually on loan in China's second tier, but they certainly could be - and will be depending on the success of those who have already handed over their passport for a Beijing hukou - China's household registration system. The next possibility, of course, is that these players are brought into the fold for the Chinese national team in an effort to aid the nation's qualification for a second ever FIFA World Cup finals. 

The possibility overseas is that they might well have a potential superstar already in their midst, or at least just around the corner. Take the NFL. American football has only had one Chinese-born player on the books of a franchise, Ed Wang. The offensive tackle was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2010 but only played six times before injury ended his career. He signed on for the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles but never suited up for another NFL game.

If he was the great Chinese hope then the NFL might have a second chance sooner than they think. While efforts to turn China onto gridiron are slow going, there is a Chinese-American who was drafted in this year's draft.

Taylor Rapp, a safety with the University of Washington Huskies, was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams at 61st. The 21-year-old's mother is Shanghainese and he is proud of his Chinese heritage, so much so that he is already talking in terms of being a role model despite not yet having put on his pads in anger in pro football.

Rapp seems a well-adjusted and responsible young man. He also seems one heck of a potential player. These are two reasons for the NFL China marketing team to get excited, but his words during his pre-draft commercial spot with Hyundai will have had them weak at the nihaos.


"There's not a lot of Asian-Americans in sport," he said in his installment of the Rolling With The Rookies video series. "In football there's none.

"My mission is to inspire Asian-American kids who don't have someone to look up to. I want to be that role model that they can be inspired by."

He namechecked Jeremy Lin, the Chinese-American whose breakout in the NBA sparked a worldwide euphoria known as "Linsanity" a decade ago. Now, Lin, who has taken the burden on being a role model for Asian-Americans on his broad shoulders, is just two games away from a first NBA Finals playing for the Toronto Raptors.

Aside from Yao, the NBA has had few Asian or Asian heritage role models. Baseball has done OK because of the popularity of the sport in Japan, South Korea and the island of Taiwan. American football has had even fewer - more English-born players have played in the NFL than those of Asian heritage, and there have been less than 50 from England.

That is changing with this draft. Rapp was joined by the player regarded as the best in the draft, Kyler Murray, a quarterback who could have gone pro in Major League Baseball and has a contract with the Oakland A's if he ever decides to swap the pigskin for the hardball. 

With players such as these, those whose on-field stats are as strong as their pride at their heritage, then Western sports might have a shortcut to success in China and the wider region. In times as fraught as these, this can only be a good thing.

Posted in: SOCCER

blog comments powered by Disqus