Moves to boost Chinese football by introducing naturalised players have been thrown into disarray after clubs were ordered not to pick several new signings from abroad.
China has previously resisted the naturalisation policies followed by other countries but the Chinese Football Association opened the door to foreign-born players of Chinese descent at the end of last season.
The change in approach could eventually bolster a national squad that is sorely lacking international-class players and has qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002.
However, four trumpeted new arrivals failed to take the field, with domestic media saying they had been barred for the first two games of the Chinese Super League season.
“As for the specific reason, none of the parties responded publicly,” the Beijing Youth Daily said last week.
“It is reported that the Chinese Football Association has previously drafted a rule for guiding the legitimate naturalisation and deploying the naturalised players.
“However, until now, this rule has not been officially announced.”
The Shanghai Observer said there was confusion among the clubs over the naturalisation policy, leading to “complete disorder” and “chaos”.
Beijing Guoan signed Norwegian-born John Hou Saeter and former England youth international Nico Yennaris during the January-February transfer window, saying it hoped they would eventually play for China.
Both have Chinese mothers, with former Arsenal midfielder Yennaris tweeting that it was “an exciting opportunity for me to play in the birth country of my mother and grandparents”.
Yet neither was involved in Friday’s opening-day 1-0 win at Wuhan Zall, despite the 21-year-old Saeter coming on as a substitute the previous week in the Super Cup, the season’s curtain-raiser.
Saeter, now known as Hou Yongyong, and Yennaris (now Li Ke) travelled to Wuhan but were not included in the squad at the 11th hour, Beijing Youth Daily said.
Also missing from the first round of CSL matches was Gabon-born Alexander N’Doumbou, the former Marseille midfielder signed last month by Shanghai Shenhua and who also goes by the name Qian Jiegei.
Defender Tyias Browning, the former England youth international who recently joined Guangzhou Evergrande from Everton, also failed to appear for his new club.
Browning reportedly has a Chinese grandfather and Evergrande previously said they were in the process of having him naturalised.
Naturalisation is an attractive proposition for clubs because they are restricted to starting a maximum of three overseas players each game.
But there are hints of disquiet over the initiative.
Chen Xuyuan, chairman of CSL champions Shanghai SIPG, said naturalisation was tantamount to taking “a short-cut”.
“Personally, I’m not very fond of the idea of buying too many naturalised players,” Chen said last week, vowing instead to focus on developing players from SIPG’s youth ranks.
“But if a player is of Chinese descent, he can still be developed,” Chen added.
Some football observers and fans online said it was more evidence of muddled thinking at the CFA, which regularly comes under fire for its running of the game.