When Nico Yennaris, the former Arsenal player, agreed to a move to the Chinese Super League from Championship outfit Brentford, he probably didn’t realise it would be quite as taxing as the subsequent red tape made it.
London-born ex-England youth star Yennaris switched to Beijing Guoan in January and eventually made his debut as the first naturalised footballer in the CSL when his side snatched a 1-0 victory over Beijing Renhe in the third round of games.
That’s right, he is “naturalised”. This had to happen because of legislation brought in by the football authorities to try to boost the chance of China developing a strong national team in readiness for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The authorities now dictate that a club must provide proof of a player’s change of nationality and Chinese passport before that recruit can be registered as what is known as a domestic import. it is also stated that these players should learn the culture and history of China, its national anthem as well as Mandarin!
So that meant that Yennaris, whose mother is Chinese, had to give up his British citizenship to complete the transfer because China doesn’t allow dual citizenship. Yennaris, who is aged 25, now goes by the Chinese name of Li Ke on his new passport — and he admits he has been rehearing the national anthem in Chinese and was even seen on TV singing it before the game on Saturday.
And he said: “We know it is very important. A teacher printed it on a sheet for me to learn. Communication with the team is good. They understand I am learning Chinese now so they are patient with me.”
Chen Xuyuan, who is the chairman of CSL champions Shanghai SIPG, said naturalisation was a shortcut to satisfy the new demands and that he wasn’t necessarily in favour of it and would look to focus on developing players from the club’s youth ranks. He said: “Personally, I’m not very fond of the idea of buying too many naturalised players. But if a player is of Chinese descent, he can still be developed.”
Gong Lei, who is a former coach of Beijing Renhe, said that naturalisation might be a quick fix for a club at the league level but questioned how big a difference can be made on the international stage, adding: “Sustainably, we need to stay committed to the basics of developing our youth system, from school campuses up, and have quality tests of homegrown players in the league.”
Meanwhile, Xu Yang, who is a former China midfielder, said that the naturalisation policy shouldn’t cover up the real problems. He added: “It might help in the short term, but if we aspire to become a world soccer power decades from now, we need to start at the grassroots level by offering enough facilities, coaching and funding to nurture youth players, generation after generation.”