Uighur footballer chases China landmark in troubled times

Peter STEBBINGS
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Mirahmetjan Muzepper is primed to become the first ethnic Uighur to play for China's national team

The scion of a footballing 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 far-western region of Xinjiang, where tough security measures are in place against what the government calls a separatist and Islamic extremist threat.

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

But China has branded reports of such camps "completely untrue", saying 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 on Saturday 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.

But 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 footballing occasion at a troubled time for Uighurs.

"It is different from before," Muzepper told state broadcaster CCTV 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."

Muzepper, whose father and grandfather were footballers, added: "As long as I am given the chance, for every match I will give 100 percent.

"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 (CSL), 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."

- 'Missing' youth star -

Beijing-based Brandon Chemers, editor-in-chief of the Wild East Football website specialising in China, said that 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," he 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," added Chemers, who estimates there are about 10 Uighurs playing in the CSL.

President Xi Jinping is leading an ambitious move to improve China's footballing fortunes, but there are signs that Uighur footballers are not safe from Beijing's "counterterrorism" drive in Xinjiang.

In June, professional footballers' union FIFPro said it was "concerned" about 19-year-old Erfan Hezim, an Uighur and a youth international for China who plays for CSL side Jiangsu Suning.

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

In June, the forward -- who has been pictured with Lionel Messi -- was listed as a player on Jiangsu's website. But as of Thursday, he was no longer on there.

Jiangsu failed to respond when contacted by AFP.