SHANGHAI: Nico Yennaris was born in working-class east London, played with Harry Kane at Arsenal as a boy and is an England youth international.
While Kane moved to Tottenham Hotspur and became England captain, Yennaris’s career has taken a very different direction, becoming the first naturalised player to score in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
In January he made Beijing his home — 8,000km (5,000 miles) from Leytonstone in east London — and the midfielder even has a new name.
“It’s the first in history so it’s something that I can be proud of,“ the 25-year-old known as Li Ke in China told state television after his milestone goal Sunday for CSL leaders Beijing Guoan.
Born to a Chinese mother and Cypriot father, Yennaris, who is nine weeks older than fellow east Londoner Kane, now wants to help his new country become a footballing force.
“I hope to help Chinese football and hopefully one day I can play in the national team as well and we will try to get to a World Cup,“ he said in his unmistakably London accent.
Yennaris, who signed for Beijing from Brentford in England’s second tier in January for a reported £4.95 million (US$6.5 million), is eligible to represent China because he played for England only up to under-19, not the senior side.
Chinese football this season began bringing in naturalised players, with Yennaris joined at Beijing by Norwegian-born John Hou Saeter.
Yennaris will be on a vastly improved salary in the Chinese capital but he will have to dump his British passport because China does not recognise dual nationality.
That means no going back now for Yennaris, who is yet to get a call-up for his adopted country but would improve a team ranked 74th by FIFA, a rung above tiny Cape Verde who have population of 500,000 compared to China’s 1.4 billion.
He will though have to cover up his arm tattoos because the Chinese government frowns upon them.
China failed to score or win a point in their only World Cup appearance, in 2002.
If the stars align — and China improve markedly — Yennaris could face Kane at the World Cup, Yennaris in the red of China, Kane in England white.
They played for the same club in east London and were recruited as boys by Arsenal, although Kane was released after one season at the age of eight.
Yennaris made a handful of appearances for Arsene Wenger’s side including 45 minutes against Manchester United in the Premier League in 2012.
Yennaris and striker Kane remain on good terms. “When we see each other face to face and bump into each other we say ‘hello’ and we always speak,“ Yennaris said.
Yennaris had a couple of loan spells in the lower tiers of English football before moving permanently to west London club Brentford in 2014.
Five years later came the life-changing opportunity to make the radical switch to China, where Yennaris is on a steep learning curve, especially with the language.
Much has been made of him singing the Chinese national anthem but he is still picking up the basics off and on the pitch, such as the words for free-kick and corner.
There were eight yellow cards and a red in Beijing’s 2-1 victory over Henan Jianye at the weekend, which at least made Yennaris feel like he was back in the rough and tumble of English lower-league football.
“I’m used to this, but this may be a different level of fouls,“ he said. — AFP