Uighur player chases China landmark amid turmoil


Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 16

The scion of a soccer-playing family is primed to become the first Uighur to represent China’s national team, amid growing international concern about the fate of the ethnic minority group.

Mirahmetjan Muzepper was born in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where tough security measures are in place against what the government has called a separatist and Muslim extremist threat.

Up to 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, according to estimates cited by a UN panel.

However, China has branded reports of such camps “completely untrue,” saying that it has made the region safer.

Against that murky backdrop, Tianjin Teda midfielder Muzepper has been called up by China coach Marcello Lippi and is hoping to make his debut either against Qatar today or versus Bahrain three days later.

Muzepper featured at the 2010 Asian Games for China’s under-23 team and was included in the senior training squad the same year.

However, he did not make the team on that occasion and, now 27, he hopes to convince Italian World Cup winner Lippi to give him the nod for his first full cap, in what would be a landmark occasion at a troubled time for Uighurs.

“It is different from before,” Muzepper told China Central Television this week, comparing his time with the senior side in 2010 to now. “I was quite young then, but the pressure is quite big this time.”

“As long as I am given the chance, for every match I will give 100 percent,” said Muzepper, whose father and grandfather were soccer players. “I hope that I can get the chance.”

Muzepper, who can play on the wing or in central midfield, has been ever-present this season for mid-table Tianjin, playing 18 times in the Chinese Super League, scoring one goal and providing two assists.

Underlining the sensitivity of the Uighur question in China, state media have shied away from mentioning Muzepper’s ethnicity.

However, he is proud of his heritage and said in an interview last year: “Xinjiang players have that unyielding [character] in their bones.”

“Even though my skills are not as good as yours, I can use my efforts to make up for it,” he said.

Brandon Chemers, Beijing-based editor-in-chief of the Wild East Football Web site that specializes in China, said it was “hard to discount the possibility” that Muzepper’s call-up is politically motivated — perhaps a demonstration of national unity orchestrated from the top.

“But I don’t think so,” Chemers said. “This side is a bit more experimental than previous ones and I think Lippi wants to see what he can do.”

“Muzepper’s not setting the world on fire, but he’s having a decent enough season with Tianjin,” said Chemers, who estimated that there were about 10 Uighurs playing in the league.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been leading an ambitious initiative to improve China’s soccer fortunes, but there have been signs that Uighur players are not safe from the “counterterrorism” drive.

In June, the International Federation of Professional Footballers said it was “concerned” about 19-year-old Erfan Hezim, an Uighur youth international for China who plays for Jiangsu Suning.

Hezim was in February detained “for visiting foreign countries,” US-funded Radio Free Asia said, citing anonymous sources in Xinjiang.

In June, the forward was listed as a player on Jiangsu’s Web site, but as of yesterday, he was no longer on there.