China’s Soccer Woes Deepen as Naturalized Players Jump Ship

China’s Soccer Woes Deepen as Naturalized Players Jump Ship


Before the pandemic, China’s soccer leagues were boosted by an influx of foreign-born players who naturalized as Chinese. Now, some of those stars are quietly renouncing their new nationalities.

At the height of China’s soccer boom, a string of foreign-born players naturalized as Chinese to play in the country’s domestic leagues without restrictions and represent the national team. 

Now, as Chinese soccer suffers a steep decline, some of those stars are quietly renouncing their new nationalities to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

In recent days, two naturalized players — Brazilian-born Ricardo Goulart and Peru’s Roberto Siucho Neira — have applied to renounce their Chinese nationalities. Both of them signed for Chinese clubs as promising young stars, but left during the pandemic as the Chinese Super League plunged into a financial crisis.

Goulart was born in Sao Paulo and played for the Brazilian club Cruzeiro, before signing for the Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande for 15 million euros in 2015.

A talented forward, Goulart scored 81 goals in 131 appearances in the Chinese Super League over the following years, helping Guangzhou win multiple league titles. In 2020, he took Chinese citizenship and adopted the name Gao Late.

But during the pandemic Goulart’s Chinese club — now renamed Guangzhou F.C. — fell into deep financial trouble, and the Brazilian moved back to his home country on a free transfer. The 31-year-old is now on the books of Esporte Club Bahia.

Ricardo Goulart signs autographs for fans in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2021. VCG

Siucho, who was born and raised in Peru but has a grandfather from south China’s Guangdong province, had a less stellar career in the Chinese leagues. 

As a promising young winger, he left Peru’s Universitario to join Guangzhou Evergrande in 2019. But he was immediately loaned out to the second-tier side Shanghai Shenxin, where he scored only once.

In 2020, Siucho naturalized as Chinese and took the name Xiao Taotao. He was then loaned out to Kunshan F.C., where he netted just twice in 28 games. He was released by Guangzhou in early 2022 and is currently without a club.

For foreign players, naturalizing as Chinese makes it easier to pursue a career in China. It allows them to evade Chinese league rules that restrict the number of foreign players clubs can field in a game, as well as represent China’s men’s national team. (Neither Goulart nor Siucho were ever selected for China, despite being eligible.)

But naturalizing as Chinese can also come at a cost: Goulart and Siucho reportedly had to give up their original nationalities to do so. Now that Goulart has returned to the Brazilian league, which imposes similar restrictions on foreign players, he needs to regain his Brazilian nationality to register as a homegrown talent.

It’s unclear whether other naturalized players will follow Goulart and Siucho’s example. Foreign-born stars have become crucial to China’s national team in recent years, but their loyalty may be tested if the fortunes of Chinese soccer continue to decline.

Roberto Siucho Neira dribbles the ball during a match in Meizhou, Guangdong province, 2021. IC

Chinese media have praised Luo Guofu — formerly known as Aloisio — for his continued devotion to China in recent months. The Brazilian moved to the Chinese Super League in 2014, naturalized as Chinese in 2020, and was then selected for the national team.

In 2022, Luo returned to Brazil to play for America Mineiro, but he has kept his Chinese passport and still plays with the name Guo LF on the back of his jersey.

Ai Kesen, formerly known as Elkeson, has done the same thing. The Brazilian had a stellar club career in China and became the first player with no Chinese ancestry to represent the Chinese national team. Now, he has moved back to Brazil to play for Gremio, but he remains a Chinese citizen in spite of the restrictions the Brazilian league places on foreign nationals.

Naturalized players who remain in China include the British-born Li Ke, or Nico Yennaris, and Norwegian-born Hou Yongyong, or John Hou Sæter. The pair play for Beijing Guoan, with Li Ke having also represented China.

Feng Zhen, a veteran Chinese soccer journalist, told Sixth Tone that he does not expect other naturalized players to give up their Chinese passports for now, unless they plan to return to countries that place limits on foreign players.

It costs just 50 yuan ($7.35) for someone to apply to renounce their Chinese nationality. The renunciation certificate costs another 200 yuan.

Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Left: Ricardo Goulart celebrates the Spring Festival in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2016. VCG; Right: Roberto Siucho Neira plays in a match in Dalian, Liaoning province, 2021. IC)

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