Why new-look China is bad news for Australia on road to Qatar

Elkeson of Guangzhou Evergrande Source: Visual China Group

China have implemented a new strategy as they look to book just their second FIFA World Cup berth. And it could spell bad news for Australia.

Things can change quickly in football.

Even just a couple of years ago the idea of China having a Brazilian playing in the national team was unthinkable. But here we are.

Elkeson, the Chinese Super League top scorer in 2013 and 2014, is going to take on the Maldives on September 10 as Team Dragon kick off another campaign in the hope of only a second-ever appearance at the World Cup since their 2002 campaign.

With Elkeson, and other Brazilians who may soon follow and wear the red shirt, the road to Qatar 2022 looks a little easier for the Middle Kingdom. And a little bumpier for the others, including Australia.

As it stands, and without any outside help, China would have an outside shot to qualify for Qatar.

The team is in the top ten in Asia. China were not that far away from reaching the World Cup play-offs ahead of 2018 (though the best results came after a bad start which removed some of the pressure). And then the team reached the last eight of the AFC Asian Cup in January.

So while China would usually struggle to get one of Asia’s four automatic spots at the next global meeting, it would not be out of the question. Many things would have to go right and one of the usual suspects would have to slip up.

This is a different China now however. Having Marcello Lippi in charge helps but even the presence of a man who has won the World Cup and lifted Champions League trophies in Asia and Europe would probably still not be enough in normal circumstances.

I asked Lippi in January -- just before his first spell ended -- during the Asian Cup why he had brought the oldest squad, with an average age of 29.2, to the tournament. He answered that the young players in the country were not good enough to play in a major tournament.

Eventually they will be. China has been investing in youth football in the country in recent years but the fruits of that policy are unlikely to be seen for some time yet. There is another way.

When Lippi returned in May to take over the team for a second time, the Italian had conditions. One of those was to be able to look outside China for talent. The first step involved the calling-up of Nico Yennaris.

A former Arsenal youth player and England youth international, the midfielder was doing well with Brentford in the English Championship but was signed by Beijing Guoan in January.

Due to his Chinese mother, Yennaris was able to take Chinese citizenship which meant that the player, now known as Li Ke, could be registered as a local player, outside the four-player foreign quota.

Yennaris has had a solid season for Beijing and was called up for June’s friendlies by Lippi, making his debut against the Philippines. There are other players of Chinese heritage around the world who may now be brushing up on their Mandarin.

So far so good but bringing in Brazilians is a whole new ball game. FIFA says that if you have resided in a country for five years and have not represented your original nation in a competitive international then you can switch.

This is the loophole China is exploiting. Team Dragon now have a 30-year-old who is better than any striker they have had for some time. In Asia, if you have a reliable goalscorer then you are doing better than most. Elkeson is not going to turn China into world beaters but he is going to provide the team with more of a cutting edge.

Things will really start to change if fellow Brazilian Ricardo Goulart also picks up a new passport, as is being reported. The Guangzhou Evergrande star has shown his class in the AFC Champions League. He is one of the best players in Asia.

Having Goulart line up with Elkeson, and Espanyol striker Wu Lei, and China’s attack is starting to look like the most dangerous in Asia.

It all means that China have a real chance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. If so then one of the usual suspects are going to miss out. Australia need to be careful.