By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Former Arsenal and Brentford midfielder Nico Yennaris has become the first overseas-born player to be called up for the China national team after he was included in Marcello Lippi’s squad for upcoming friendlies against the Philippines and Tajikistan.
Yennaris, known as Li Ke in China, was born and grew up in England and is eligible to play for China through his mother, who was born in the country.
The 25-year-old signed for Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan in January and has been granted Chinese citizenship, making him eligible for selection by Lippi as the Italian seeks to boost the fortunes of the country’s struggling national team.
Yennaris’ inclusion marks a significant shift in policy by the Chinese Football Association, which had previously resisted calls to include naturalised players in the national set-up despite it being common practice in many other countries.
However, Yennaris is one of a number of overseas-born players of Chinese descent to have joined a Chinese Super League club since the turn of the year in a sign that the mood had changed.
The issue was also believed to be a factor in Lippi’s decision to return to the helm of the team earlier this month, with the World Cup winner standing down when his contract ended following China’s quarter-final Asian Cup exit in January.
Lippi’s squad at the continental championship had the oldest average age of the 24 nations competing and is in desperate need of rejuvenation ahead of China’s attempt to secure a spot at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
China will start their campaign to qualify for the finals for the first time since 2002 in September, with the games against the Philippines and Tajikistan in Guangzhou on June 7 and 11 respectively the only warm-ups planned ahead of their first qualifiers.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)