Chinese Football Legend Slams CFA for Naturalizing Football Players

Hao Haidong, Chinese football legend (source: zhuanlan.zhihu)

While the Chinese Football Association is actively seeking to recruit foreign-born talents to play for the national team in an attempt to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals, Chinese football legend Hao Haidong has his own opinions on the matter. In a recent interview with Chinese media Southern People Weekly, Hao expressed his disagreements with the Chinese football officials’ decision to accept foreign-born players into the national team.

“The naturalized players in our football team nowadays, they have no blood ties with the country. This is scary, are we becoming better even if we become the World Champion? So just because the FIFA policy allows naturalization, should countries around the world do that?”

In the exclusive interview with Southern People Weekly, Hao and his wife Ye Zhaoying both talked about their lives after retiring from professional sports. The couple now run a farm and a badminton school. Hao’s son is playing professional football in a local Spanish team. The 22-year-old defender Hao Runze is currently playing for Club Recreativo Granada, the reserve team for Granada CF in the top tier of Spanish football, La Liga.

The couple also talked about their past experiences and hardships in professional sports. Hao Haidong is one of the most successful Chinese football players during the 2000s, scoring 41 goals for the Chinese national team in his 107 appearances from 1992 to 2004. Hao is believed to be the best striker of his era, leading the national team into its first-ever FIFA World Cup finals appearance in 2002.

Hao’s wife Ye Zhaoying was a notable badminton player in the 1990s. The two-time world singles champion also played in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and won a bronze medal in the tournament. Ye was once the No.1 ranked badminton player during her career. At the age of 44, Ye decided to come back into competitive badminton and started to participate in the Spanish leagues.

Ye was also a direct victim of unethical conduct from the Chinese badminton team. Ye was forced to lose to her teammate Gong Zhichao in the Olympics to ensure that the Chinese national team can get a gold medal in the finals. As a result of the incident, Ye retired from badminton in her 20s, way before reaching her prime in the field.

Hao argues that the naturalization policy from the Chinese Football Association is another example of prioritizing results over progress, an approach that Hao strongly opposed throughout his playing career. Hao once said openly that he plays for his own honor rather than some officials behind the scenes. Hao is also a strong advocate against the current administrative burdens that professional teams bear from the governing body.

Hao continued to make his argument against naturalizing foreign-born players saying, “You need to take a look at what the other countries did in naturalizing players. They are naturalizing those who lived in the country for years, and those with cultural connections. Or else you would be like some of the middle eastern countries: They have too much money to waste. So they got one or two players to play in the games. They do not care. They just want to use the money for some fun. This should not be the case for China.”

Despite being a vocal opponent against the politicized and unnecessary burden placed upon Chinese football, Hao Haidong’s arguments against the case are very questionable. Through naturalization and effective training, Qatar claimed the 2019 Asian Cup title, after defeating many strong Asian teams such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan. All these three teams qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia.

As for the naturalization policies, the current proposed policy from the Chinese Football Association fit into Hao Haidong’s intended plan. Applicants need to play in the Chinese league for at least four consecutive seasons or live in China for 5 consecutive years to be eligible to become a naturalized player. The length of residency and playing career would both qualify as Hao’s cultural connection requirement.

Hao’s argument became more problematic after emphasizing the Chinese ancestral blood and culture, commenting, ”We often talk about the Chinese being the successors of dragon, and we intend to promote confidence within the Chinese culture. You want to have long-term growth and be a strong country in the world. But just for one World Cup, you are getting all these naturalized players on the team.”

Hao’s wife Ye Zhaoying added to the argument with some protectionist opinions, as she said, “This is not fair to our own athletes. They are at the age of playing for the country, but when you have naturalized players in the team, then our own players will not have the chance anymore. This will be very discouraging for them.”

Most professional football leagues have policies protecting domestic players, including the top-level European leagues. It is not an easy task for non-EU players to take a spot from the team’s roster. However, the couple’s argument against naturalization would be somehow racist. Skilled talent should not be stopped from playing if their skills and abilities are recognized, especially at the top level of a highly competitive sport such as football.

Hao’s opinion has been widely reported on by many other sports media outlets. Chinese readers are relatively divided regarding Hao’s arguments. Some argue that Hao Haidong is outdated and not being inclusive enough to others. Whether or not foreign-born players have blood ties with the country, they should be regarded as part of the nation as they play under the five-star red flag. However, some acknowledge Hao’s argument, and endorse the argument that those without blood ties with China should not be allowed to play for the national team.

Different from countries such as the United States, Canada, or France, China does not have a tradition of accepting immigrants. The sentiments that the general public have towards foreigners are merely the tip of the iceberg in the country’s general mood towards immigration.

However, the sudden change in naturalizing foreign players is certainly a decision made by top officials within the Chinese Football Association. It is obviously another example of the governing bodies interfering with the country’s football development, solely focusing on better results. These are the common practices in China, especially in Olympic sports. The Chinese swimming team controversies, the unethical practices from Chinese badminton teams, and the current naturalization policies are all serving the same purposes, which is to ensure the sports officials get the result they want.

It is not fair to label Hao Haidong as a racist, despite his highly problematic choice of words. However, Hao reveals the reality of the country’s public opinion towards naturalization both in sports and in other areas. From having a selected national reserve team, to recruiting foreign born football players, the Chinese football officials failed to make the decision that they should have made way before, which is not to interfere in how football should be played.