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Muzepper case hints at future of Chinese national team – multicultural, middle class and maybe not doomed to mediocrity

Changing face of China can be embodied by next generation of players with fans so desperate they want Pato to play

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 2:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 9:12pm

No wins and no goals scored. The record books will show nothing unusual but it has been a historic week for the Chinese men’s football team.

Marcello Lippi’s side may have lost 1-0 to Qatar and drawn 0-0 with Bahrain in the international week but those games included firsts for the side.

Tianjin Teda’s Mirahmetjan Muzepper became the first ethnic Uygur footballer to play for the national team when he came off the bench in the loss to the Fifa World Cup 2022 hosts in Doha for a 16-minute taste of international football.

A few days later the Kashgar-born midfielder was in the side from kick-off.

It’s of particular significance in the current political climate.

Sandwiched in between those fixtures was the first New York Times front page to cover the camps in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where growing media coverage has revealed that up to one million Uygur Muslims are being held by authorities.

While that has been dominating the front pages, is it coincidence that a Uygur footballer has made the back?

The political climate has led some to view Muzepper’s call-up as a political move to deflect from what is happening in the west.

Thankfully, Fifa insist sport and politics are separate so that can’t be the case at the government-run Chinese Football Association.

The majority of the CFA suits, like the majority of China’s estimated population of 1.3 billion, is Han. This is the largest of the 56 minorities, comprising at least 90 per cent of people.

It’s no surprise that Han people dominate most positions of power in daily life, and football is no different.

The national team is largely Han, with Maitijiang, as Muzepper is also known, one of a few notable exceptions.

China’s best player and one of the best in Asia, Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei, who leads the scoring charts in the Chinese Super League, is Hui. As is defender Zhang Linpeng, a seven-time CSL champion and twice winner of the AFC Champions League.

Beijing Guoan’s Piao Cheng, who is due a recall on his club form, is of Korean descent. His cousin Jin Jingdao also played for the national team.

Muzepper is in the squad on merit. He was the first Uygur to play in the Chinese Super League and the China call-up has been almost a decade in the making. He was around the national team set-up after playing for the under-20s and was called up to train by then boss (and former international Hui footballer) Gao Hongbo.

There are other non-Han players who might yet make their mark. Tianjin Quanjian’s Mi Haolun is Hui and has appeared for all of the age group sides but at 25 is yet to make his full debut.

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Eddy Francis, the Shanghainese-Tanzanian defender better known as Aidi, who plays for Shanghai Shenhua would be good value, too.

China is changing, more rapidly than some would like, and if the face of the country is changing then shouldn’t its football team reflect that?

One argument for England’s years of failure on the international stage is that unlike other countries, it never embraced its middle classes as players, as pointed out by Simon Kuper in Soccernomics .

It will be interesting to see where Chinese football goes with its own middle class – it is they who have been embracing football for a little longer than the top-down directive of the last few years by being able to afford to pay for their children to attend coaching sessions.

The introduction of football into the nationwide curriculum will reach more than the middle classes but on the other hand, the very poorest children are likely not going to school and the very best coaching is in major urban hubs and usually football-specific rather than school set-ups.

However, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2015, there are underprivileged kids, including Uygurs, on scholarship in the Evergrande academy.

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Muzepper’s milestone might just be a pub quiz question of the future or it might be something less anomalous. Like when Viv Anderson became England’s first black player in 1978.

The late ’70s was a time when monkey chants and bananas aimed at black players rained down from the English terraces. It’s fair to say that things, for footballers in the top division at least, have changed for the better and the England team itself is as diverse as the bigger cities.

It even has a middle-class player in Eric Dier, who spent his teen years in Portugal after his family moved and came through the Sporting Lisbon academy before joining Spurs.

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The day China has a middle-class footballer in the national team will be its own landmark but before then it has bigger problems, such as high-ranking officials calling to berate Lippi during last week’s Bahrain game.

Things are so bad people are calling for Tianjin Quanjin’s Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato to be allowed to play for China after the player has embraced the country since moving to the CSL.

Chinese football fans want a superstar.

Wu Lei proves that where there’s a will there’s a Hui. After Muzepper, for the next generation that could be a Uygur.