Nico Yennaris: Former Arsenal and Brentford midfielder called up by China


Former Arsenal and Brentford midfielder Nico Yennaris has become the first foreign-born player to be called up by the China national team.

Yennaris, who was born in London and played for England at youth level, is eligible for China through his mother.

He joined Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan from Brentford in January and was granted Chinese citizenship.

Known as Li Ke in China, 26-year-old Yennaris was also eligible to play for Cyprus through his father.

He will join up with Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi’s squad for their upcoming friendlies against Philippines and Tajikistan.

China have previously resisted calls to include naturalised players in their squad.


Shao Zhijie, BBC Chinese Service

Ever since Lippi’s “surprise” reappointment as head coach a week ago, the topic of naturalised players has been at the centre of the conversation about the next squad list.

According to local media, introducing at least some naturalised players is one of the conditions for the Italian’s return to the job after 119 days.

The priority for China’s football development will be – as it always has been – to get the men’s team into the World Cup, but they have failed to do so since 2002.

More worryingly, China have been unable to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup since 2005. That generation of Chinese players are now well into their 30s and have not won anything – and the younger players are not even considered to be as good.

That could mean that even if China gets everything right from now on in President Xi Jinping’s grand football scheme, we still need another 10 years or so to see how it turns out.

Under that prospect, the country is now willing to take a new step for some short-term success – an idea toyed with over the years never committed to.

Yennaris is not the only immigrant player China is trying to bring to the national team. Beijing Guoan’s John Hou Saeter and Guangzhou Evergrande’s Tyias Browning are expected to follow that path in the future.

That does not mean controversies will be avoided.

During the “Two Sessions” in March, there was some debate about whether these players should be granted Chinese citizenship and what this means for Chinese nationality law in a wider sense. Incidentally, clubs were instructed not to use these players in the first two rounds of the 2019 Chinese Super League, to avoid the heat of the debate.

At the moment, China seems to be focusing on foreign players with at least some Chinese descent. But local media also reported on Thursday that two Brazilian players, Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso and Ricardo Goulart Pereira are “in the process” of getting their Chinese citizenship.

If they get called up in the future, the question of whether Chinese football is still being played by Chinese will be asked.


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