On June 7th, 2019, a football match between China and the Philippines took place in Guangzhou. The game caught more than its fair share of attention for a friendly match, because Li Ke, an English-born defensive midfielder, was selected in the starting line-up and thereby became the first naturalized football player ever to play for the Chinese national team.
After years of controversy, Chinese football finally took its first step towards normalizing naturalization on the national team level. However, the discussion has not ended yet. People are still unsure whether naturalization can bring hope to this hopeless football country.
Li Ke, also known as Nico Yennaris, was born in London in 1993 to a Cypriot father and a Chinese mother from Guangzhou. He joined the Arsenal Youth Academy in 2001 at the age of 7 and spent the entirety of his youth career there. Despite having captained the Gunners’ U18 team to the 2009-2010 Premier Academy League title and making his Premier League debut when he was only 18, Li made no further caps for Arsenal due to his long-term injuries and Arsenal’s highly competitive squad. After being loaned to several lower-division teams, Li’s last stop before coming to China was Brentford, a team in Championship, the second-highest division overall in the English football league system.
Hou Yongyong shared a similar background with Li Ke. Born to a Norwegian father and a Chinese mother from Luoyang, Hou demonstrated his outstanding talent from an early age. When Hou was 10 years old, he participated in an international football competition arranged by Manchester United. He finished second among approximately 20,000 participants and was only beaten by a boy who was a year older than him. In April 2014, Hou made his debut for Rosenborg, a reputed Norwegian football club, and became the youngest player ever to play for Rosenborg, at 16 years and 101 days. Unfortunately, a magical start did not bring him a successful career. Suffering from injuries as well, Hou gradually lost his shine in Norway.
Although both were former rising stars at their respective teams, Li and Hou’s international futures were fading in their birth countries after relative declines in their form. Meanwhile, Chinese football has had a shortage of talent for a decade.
Ten years ago, China launched a crackdown on match-fixing and corruption in football. The crackdown lasted for over 3 years and more than thirty people, including China football ex-chiefs Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, were incarcerated. After the crackdown, China found itself in the ruins of an already fragile ecosystem. Fewer parents were willing to send their kids to play football and even less support was available for training. While China’s long neglected neighbor South Korea cheered for entering the U20 World Cup final, China has to accept the fact that they have not qualified for the highest-level youth football tournament for over 14 years. While Chinese fans are cheering on Wu Lei’s goals for Espanyol, Son Heung-min has reasserted his importance for Tottenham, playing a crucial role on the teams’ historic run to the 2019 UEFA Champions League final. In the Asian Cup earlier this year, the average age of Chinese players was over 28. Most players were in their late 20s with talisman Zheng Zhi being the oldest player in the tournament at 38. When China was knocked out from the tournament in the quarter-final with Iran, some Chinese media posted, “True hopelessness has just arrived” — we all know that we are paying for the mistakes that we made years ago, corrections of which came too late.
China has made many efforts to revive its football, including inviting world-class coaches to manage the national team. However, without athletes who can implement the coach’s strategy, Chinese football cannot make further progress.
Globally speaking, naturalization is not a new concept. Many countries have tried to improve their team’s performance quickly through naturalization. A typical example is Qatar, the champion of the Asian Cup this year, whose squad is composed of players from ten different countries. China, restricted by its rigorous immigration system, is late in the naturalization game. Read More