In March 2015, London-born Nico Yennaris played for Wycombe Wanderers in the fourth tier of English football in front of 2,362 people.Fast forward and the midfielder is now called Li Ke, he has a Chinese passport and plays for China, trying to help them reach the World Cup for only the second time in their history.”If I was to look at where my career was going at that time, I would probably have said you’re mad,” the 27-year-old told AFP, reflecting on his unlikely journey from England’s lower leagues.
Li, who is half-Chinese, grew up playing alongside England and Tottenham Hotspur forward Harry Kane, and they are from the same area of east London.He made his solitary Premier League appearance for Arsenal in 2012 against Manchester United and eventually featured in all four divisions in England.
But in 2019 the former England youth international made a move that would change his life and the course of Chinese football.
Li left Brentford for Chinese Super League title contenders Beijing Guoan, and in June that year became China’s first naturalised footballer.A small contingent of Brazil-born players has followed, a quick fix aimed at getting ambitious China to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“It’s an honour really because you’ve created a bit of history that no one else can take away from you,” said Li, whose mother is Chinese and father Greek-Cypriot.Speaking by telephone from Suzhou, where Beijing are in a CSL “bubble” to guard against the coronavirus, Li said it was his determination to play at the highest level possible that took him to China. He could also have represented Cyprus.”You’ve got to be realistic. (Was) it possible for me to play for England? Probably no, honestly, with the way my career was going on,” he said.