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Naturalisation of footballers in China: a short history (Part 1)


Wearing a five-star red flag on his chest, the number 25 Li Ke was in a red national team jersey and sang the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.

At the age of 20, Li Ke once claimed that if he did not play football professionally, he would be a singer. Now in the music playlist of his mobile phone, between Beyonce, Obry Drake Greehan or Miley Cyrus, there is an entry of the “March of the Volunteers”, he listens to this passionate melody during breaks between training seesions and waits for this moment to sing.

This was at 7:30 pm on June 7, 2019. The Team Dragon with Lippi 2.0 made its debut in the Philippines with a warm-up match against the Philippines.

Li Ke stood out from the team despite not being particularly imposing physically. From a distance, maybe it’s the thick eyebrows and beards, or the deep eye sockets made the difference, he always looks a little different.

At this time, a dark-skinned foreign man sat in the stands and began to wipe his tears. He is Li’s father, Harry Yenaris. Born in Cyprus, Harry met Ying after immigrating to the UK.

Ying is a second-generation Chinese-Brit whose family had moved from Guangdong.  The two settled in Leytonstone in the East End of London, with the eldest daughter Athena and the younger son Nico.

Leytonstone has gone through a number of England internationals including Beckham, but Harry is an Arsenal season ticket holder. He encouraged the children to play football. Athena later became a female football player and coach. Nico showed his talent from an early age. At the age of 8, he joined the Arsenal youth training camp and entered the Arsenal first team at the age of 18.

In April 2018, Beijing CITIC Guo’an tossed the olive branch to Nico, but did not intend to introduce him as a foreign signing.  After 9 months of backroom operation, London’s Nico became naturalized in China and became a Beijinger. Li Ke, with an impressive CV and the ability to go with it, became the first foreign-born in the national football team.

This is not only Li Ke’s first international cap for a senior side but also the national team debut for a naturalized player.

China is not an immigrant country, and its naturalisation management is strict to the point that the permanent residence of foreigners in China is jokingly called the “green card that is the most difficult to apply in the world”.

However, in the 1950s and 1960s, China once witnessed a wave of overseas Chinese returning, including many athletes. According to some scholars, between 1949 and 1966, there were 83 returned overseas Chinese athletes and coaches whose name appeared on the registers of the national team or a provincial team. The first badminton national team in China was almost all returned overseas Chinese athletes.

The modern term gui hua originates from Japanese, as in imperial times it was said that “[a]ll the lands in the world is the Emperor’s estate, and all the folk in the world are Emperor’s people’. After arriving in Japan and Qatar, the trend of absorbing alien talent to pursue atheletic excellence and national glory is now in China.

So when, and how did this start? Now we know on February 27, 2015, the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission, a newly set up but powerful party policy unit, passed the “China Football Reform and Development Overall Plan.”

Since then, the Chinese Football Association has begun to lay out the framework for player naturalization and has decided that the clubs will deal with individual cases.

At the beginning of 2019, when the new national football team was gearing up for a new ‘World Cup cycle’, rumours of the successful naturalisation came one after another.

Most came true during the year. On August 22nd, Chen Haoyuan, the new head of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), pointed out that there have been nine players considered by CFA for naturalisation. Some of them, like Li Ke and his Guo’an teammate Hou Yongyong, have already been granted citizenship.

However, whereas Li Ke finished the national team’s debut in cheers, Hou Yongyong, who was also declared successful by Beijing Zhonghe Guoan, was still waiting.

Born in Norway in 1998, Hou Yongyong, or John Hou Sæter as he was known in his country of birth traces his China connection to Luoyang, Henan, where his mother came from. Hou’s footballing talent was telling since he was a child. On February 23, 2019, Hou Yongyong was used as a substitute in the Super Cup match between Beijing Guo’an against Shanghai SIPG.

He became the first naturalised player to play an official CFA game, a month earlier Li Ke’s domestic in the third round of the Super League in March 30. On April 14, Li Ke scored the first goal by a naturalised player in the Super League.

On May 29, in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Hou Yongyong scored a goal and was named the best player in the game. But after that, Hou Yongyong was plagued by injuries and fell to the sidelines. Currently, he is mainly preparing for the Beijing Guoan Reserve Team.

After Li Ke and Hou Yongyong, Elkson and Delgado, two Brazilian players who did not have Chinese descent, were also granted Chinese nationality. Under the spotlight, the official attitude towards naturalized players has become more cautious. In the official pronouncements, the term gui hua is no longer used. These players is now known as ru ji, or having ‘entered the register’.

How many of these naturalised players can be selected for the national football team and bring changes to the national football team is still unknown, as we are now hearing from reports Li Ke has been dropped for the World Cup qualifier against Maldives in favor of a more attacking-minded player (the rumor has since been quashed).

In fact, player naturalisation still has many difficulties in law and officialdom. In addition to football, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is just around the corner. Chinese-American 15-year-old freestyle skier Gu Ailing announced his conversion to Chinese nationality in June.

He became the first naturalised athlete in winter sports. American figure skating player Zhu Yi, Canadian Chinese ice hockey player Yuan Junjie also made it clear that they are willing to represent China in the Beijing Winter Olympics.

As China joins the International Organization for Migration and forms the National Immigration Service, whether the immigration policy has been adjusted has received good attention. In the realm of officialdom, nothing is too small to be sensitive.

A VIP channel for athletes can only be seen as an experiment in China’s adjustment of immigration policy. In recent years, new policies have been introduced every year, but they are all changes in the details. Fundamental changes will take time.

Chinese football writer who has travelled other direction.

Chinese football writer who has travelled other direction.

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