Nico Yennaris: A journey from north London to Beijing and the Chinese national team

 

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Born in Leytonstone as Nicholas Harry Yennaris 26 years ago, the former Arsenal and England youth international was always destined to make history – but not on these shores. 

Yennaris would go on to become the first ever naturalised player to be called up by China after switching London for Beijing and has even adopted a new Chinese name: Li Ke.

An Arsenal fan growing up, a 7-year-old Yennaris once held the hand of Tony Adams as he walked out onto the Highbury pitch as a club mascot back in September 2000. 

The young Gooner spent 13 years on Arsenal’s books but after unsuccessful loan spells at Notts County and Bournemouth, he waved goodbye to north London in January 2014 with just four appearances to his name.

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At first he did what many other players who have failed to make the Premier League grade did before him – found regular first-team action in the lower leagues with Brentford. 

Albeit on the other side of London, Griffin Park was still less than 20 miles from where Yennaris grew up – a minuscule distance compared to lengths he would travel in the years to come. 

The Bees were promoted to the Championship after the 2013/14 season and fast forward five years, the once-promising young player had matured into combative midfielder with 150 first-team appearances under his belt. 

Meanwhile over in China, investment in football had gone through the roof and high-profile names like Hulk, Oscar, Paulinho and Javier Mascherano had all made their big-money moves to the Chinese Super League (CSL). 

Roll on the 2019 January transfer window and more headline acts, including Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele, added their names to the list of Chinese imports. 

This meant that Yennaris’ deadline-day transfer to Beijing Guoan for a reported £5million went relatively under the radar but is perhaps not as random as you might instinctively think owing to the fact that his mother, Ying, is of Chinese heritage. 

Despite the recent influx, the CSL restricts each team to field only three foreign players in a bid to promote native player improvement but Yennaris will now be considered ‘homegrown’ having given up his British citizenship. 

Since his arrival, the midfielder has slotted straight into the first-team alongside Brazil international Renato Augusto and former Villareal striker Cedric Bakambu and winning his first league title in his debut season is now a distinct possibility. 

Beijing Guoan just sit one point behind Guangzhou Evergrande, who have won the CSL a record seven times, with four games to play. 

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However Yennaris didn’t move to China in search of success solely at domestic level – he wanted a taste of international football too having fallen off the horse at England U19s back home. 

He could have also opted to represent Cyprus but instead bought into the vision of the Chinese FA and completed the transformation into his new identity, Li Ke, by making his debut for China on June 7 in a 2-0 friendly win over the Philippines. 

By doing so he became the first player ever to play for China that wasn’t born there and has gone on to become a regular earning his fourth cap as a second-half substitute in the 7-0 thrashing of Guam in their first home match of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

The statement appointment of World Cup winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi, first in 2016 and again in 2019, coincides with China’s long-term plan to become a global football power. 

Team Dragon has qualified for just one World Cup in its history losing to Brazil, Costa Rica and Turkey in the 2002 group stages, failing to score a goal, but Lippi has plans to improve that record. 

Historically a proud nation, it now seems under Lippi’s guidance the Chinese FA has had a change of heart in its decision to consider naturalised players for selection in order to match their ambition of being dominant in every sport they participate in. 

And it is not just Li Ke that comes into that category either; Brazilian-born striker Elkeson has also made the switch, becoming the first to do so with no known Chinese ancestry at all, while former Everton defender Tyias Browning is also eligible for selection. 

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Elkeson, or Ai Kesen as he is now known, is the second-highest goalscorer in CSL history having arrived in 2013 and scored his first goals for the national team in wins over the Maldives and Guam. 

Now with Lippi at the helm, China’s chances of securing a place at their second World Cup have never looked better and the likes of Li Ke and Ai Kesen could soon be thrust from obscurity on to the national stage – and this time they will be wearing all red.

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