Where the Players are Coming from

May he prosper in Singapore

May he prosper in Singapore

Around two years ago I had discussed naturalization, and this year’s AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup features three teams with plenty of naturalized players – Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia.

The Singaporeans are leftovers from a decade long project, but they are in the final. Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, born in China, are 29 and 31 years old respectively. So does Sarajevo native Fahrudin Mustafic, and Daniel Bennett (34) came from England. One of the deadliest strikers in Southeast Asia, Aleksandar Duric, is 42. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fan put on their heads over the bodies of The Expendables.

Philippines and Indonesia invested in young bloods from Europe with different results. Philippines remain the dark horses of Southeast Asian football and no SE Asian team now can be confident they can secure win against the Street Dogs (yep, the nickname itself is quiet un-Asian). Indonesia received little support with the FA civil war lingers on and fans greeted the 0-2 defeat to Malaysia with little emotion. The prevailing mood was “I’ve told you so.”

Actually, naturalization is hardly the business of Asian nations too lazy to develop homegrown players. Both England and Australia are recruiting migrants from Africa, like Wilfried Zaha and Emmanuel Frimpong (England) or Kofi Danning and Bernie Ibini-isei (Australia). In the case of England (less likely with Australia), the FA is aware that some players can still opt to play for their countries of birth.

When the naturalization debate began in Indonesia five years ago, many commentators erroneously cited the example of France – they said that Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly were also naturalized. I wouldn’t be surprised if several Indonesians believe that Mario Balotelli is naturalized (heck, even some Italians refuse to accept that he is Italian). My definition for a player who is naturalized is someone who had spent a good deal of his life in a country and played football there (i.e. joining a football club) before moving somewhere else. This definition sticks for most players in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Qatar, and Indonesia).

That is because you hardly have people from elsewhere migrating to Asia and raising kids there. Japan makes an exception. Until last year I thought that Mike Havenaar was a son of a Dutch and Japanese, rather than a Dutch who was born in Japan. In early 1990s Japan did naturalize adult Brazilians such as Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes, but in the last ten years Japan features one of the most multicultural national teams in Asia, and they are made in Japan – Havenaar, Tadanari Lee, Ariajusuru Hasegawa, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alex Santos in the past (well, Santos finished his school in Japan). I’m still waiting for an Asian Socceroo. Their closest counterparts in Asia might be English Hong Kongers like Michael Campion and Jaimes McKee (a midnight child – his family came to Hong Kong in 1997).

Filipinos can be defensive about their footballers, worried that outsiders accusing them of playing cheap. Of course, it’s fair for them to recruit half-Filipinos, rather than arranging a Brazilian or Nigerian to switch citizenship (did Emerson wave the flag of Qatar yesterday?). Actually, that what Singapore did, and it was bit lazy – rather than owing to the virtue of immigration. I’d be happier (and no doubt many Singaporeans would be) if they look for Western footballers with a Singaporean parent (isn’t that wonderful that many half-Filipino kids in Europe and USA are boys who choose footballing as a career?) or develop migrant kids in Singapore to become footballers, the way Japan does. While there could be, could be, not enough white French footballers in France, definitely there is not enough Chinese and non-Muslim Indian footballers in Singapore.

What’s the outlook of the future of Singapore’s football? Well, the naturalization program is still living, seeing that Jonathan Toto and Sirina Camara (France) and Sherif El-Masri (Canada) are in the Young Lions. There are certainly more Chinese names, like Emeric Ong, Gary Lee, and even Benjamin Lee, whose mother is Danish. Certainly it’s quite fair to say that in Singapore, footballing (playing professionally, that is) is a Muslim affair. But seems Chinese Singaporeans are able to live with it like white French supporters do with Les Blues.

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