By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Former China coach Marcello Lippi has defended continued moves to naturalise players for the national team as the Asian country seeks to establish itself among the global football elite.
Lippi, who served two stints as China coach from October 2016 until his resignation last November, was instrumental in strengthening the talent pool with overseas-born players in an attempt to match the leading nations in Asia.
The World Cup-winning Italian is confident the strategy is to the long-term benefit of the game in the world's most populous nation.
"I believe naturalisation can help all national teams," Lippi said in an interview with China’s Tencent Sports.
"All players with Chinese ancestry around the world can serve the country with what they learn in Europe.
"They are all important members of the team and are able to make contributions. It's unfair to abandon them."
FIFA eligibility rules state that players who have no birth or ancestral connections to a specific country must have lived in the nation they wish to represent for at least five years. That has led to a big push from Chinese clubs to sign players with Chinese ancestry or aiming to naturalise foreign players who have not yet played at international level.
China has yet to qualify for the finals of the World Cup since making their debut in 2002, prompting the move to increase the depth of quality available.
Brazil-born Elkeson was the first player with no blood connections to the country to make his debut for China in August 2019.
That came several months after former England youth international Nico Yennaris, who qualifies for China through his mother, became the first overseas-born player to gain a national team call-up.
Guangzhou Evergrande winger Fernandinho was called up to the national team by current coach Li Tie earlier this month for a training camp in Shanghai. Fellow Brazil-born players Alan Kardec and Alex Teixeira have been touted as the players most likely to follow suit.
Despite suggestions China runs the risk of fielding a team made up entirely of players born outside the country, Lippi stressed he was only ever told to hold back on selecting too many naturalised players.
"They just told me not to pick too many players who have no Chinese ancestry at all," said the Italian, before adding his belief that the country is on the right track to become a major soccer power.
"China is doing well in football development," he added.
"I used to suggest more investments in teenage football and youth development. That should help raise many good players for the first team in the future.
"Fortunately, they listened to me."
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Christian Radnedge)