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.
China has one of the most rigorous naturalization systems in the world. As of 2010, the total number of naturalized Chinese on Mainland was merely 1,448. The most famous of which is Yang Chen-Ning, a prominent theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1957. From Chinese people’s perspective, only those who are extremely prominent in their fields are qualified for Chinese nationalities. Football is not an exception.
In sports, besides Li and Hou, China naturalized two skating and skiing athletes for 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Game. They are Beverly Zhu, the novice ladies national champion at the 2018 US Figure Skating Championships, and Eileen Gu, a gold medalist in the World Cup of freestyle skiing this year. Compared to the doubts and concerns about Li and Hou, Zhu and Gu received warmer welcomes. The highest-voted comment in Gu’s Weibo on her decision to compete for China is “Welcome BACK to China”. The contrast is not hard to understand. Compared to the high competence Zhu and Gu have demonstrated, Li and Hou seemed to be marginalized in their home countries. Fans have no clue how their ability compares to other Chinese players.
Especially because football is a team sport, two naturalized athletes are far from enough to have a major impact on the team’s overall performance. There have been rumors saying China is planning to naturalize more foreign athletes, including some who have no Chinese blood. Many people criticized that this action would harm China’s naturalization system as a whole. Some worry that those athletes who have no Chinese cultural background do not share the same sense of belonging and pride for the Chinese national team, especially as Chinese culture deeply underscores the importance of bloodline. As a high-voted comment on Allfootball app, one of the most popular football-related apps in China, says, “I will not be proud of a Chinese team full of players from other countries, even if they win the World Cup. Chinese football should focus on constructing youth system and stop daydreaming.”
Supporters of naturalization refuted this idea by arguing that Japan has a similar culture with China that emphasizes bloodline, and even Japan started naturalizing athletes over forty years ago. Those naturalized players raised Japanese football up to a higher level and nurtured the growth of local Japanese players. Wagner Lopes, born in Brazil, became a Japanese citizen in 1997 and assisted Japan’s first goal in the World Cup. Those supporters further stated that naturalization is not in conflict with the youth system. On the contrary, naturalization can improve the national team’s performance within a short time and boost the people’s confidence in Chinese football, encouraging more parents to send their kids to play football and provide a larger talent pool for professional teams. In other words, naturalization benefits the youth system and the whole Chinese football ecosystem.
Under tremendous scrutiny and close inspection from Chinese supporters, Li and Hou are trying their best to prove they deserve a place in China. Culturally, they continuously express their love for their new home. Before their debut, both Li and Hou were recorded singing the national anthem. In many of their interviews, they mentioned that both themselves and their whole families are very proud of their choices to play for China and they are trying hard to learn the Chinese language. Professionally, they are trying to prove their value to Chinese football through their performance on the pitch. After Li Ke’s debut last week, many football fans spoke highly of his performance on the Allfootball app. They believed that the addition of Li to the squad will allow other midfielders to participate more in an attacking sense.
Chinese President Xi is known to be obsessed with football, and once made three wishes for Chinese football: to qualify for the World Cup, to host the event and, one day, to win it. No one can deny China’s determination and ambition to improve its football, and everyone is eagerly anticipating what naturalization can bring to this country.
Featured photo credit to Mihaaru