Li loving life as China's original import

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Li Ke, pictured beating Shanghai SIPG's Hulk to the ball during a friendly match on May 21, hopes to add to the five caps he has earned for Team China to date. CHINA DAILY

Li Ke says he "has loved every minute" of becoming Team China's first naturalized player, although admits it was initially "a little bit of a challenge" to adapt to his new surroundings.

The Arsenal academy graduate, known as Nico Yennaris in his native England, made history in June last year when he pulled on the national team's red jersey to become its first foreign-born player.

Over a year since arriving in China, the Beijing Guo'an midfielder, whose mother is Chinese, has now adapted to his new life, but feels he has more to give on the pitch as China chases qualification for the 2022 World Cup finals.

"It's the first time it's ever happened and I was a little bit nervous at first," Li told the Asian Football Confederation's website,

"But, you know, it's a great honor for me to be called up to the team, and to be the first player to represent the country to be foreign-born.

"It was a little bit of a challenge, but again it was a great experience for me and I am very proud and honored.

"The language is obviously difficult and a big challenge for me. But the players have been very good to me. They've also helped me a lot, translating a lot for me. The club and everybody around me have been great."

Li's international debut was a 2-0 friendly victory over the Philippines in June 2019, when Italian Marcello Lippi was still the head coach.

The 27-year-old has since gone on to add four more caps and was recently called up by new Team China head coach Li Tie for a May training camp in Shanghai.

However, Li and the team's second naturalized addition, Brazil-born Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson), have not quite become the game changers that fans had hoped for.

After a damaging defeat to Group A leader Syria last November, China's World Cup qualification chances look slim. Li Tie's men only lead the third-place Philippines on goal difference, and face a tough battle to go through to a second phase of qualifying as one of the four best second-place finishers.

When the qualifiers resume in October, Li is likely to be joined by two or three more naturalized additions-all Guangzhou Evergrande players and who all hail from Brazil. Luo Guofu (aka Aloisio) has already having received his first call-up and coach Li is also eager to include Alan (on loan at Guo'an), while Ricardo Goulart claims he has been granted Chinese citizenship and is "waiting on China's call".

Including Ai Kesen, Evergrande's Brazil-born quartet are now well accustomed to China, having played in the CSL for several years.

Li says his transition to his new life has gone relatively smoothly thanks to the help of the Chinese Football Association and Guo'an.

"I found my first year in China to be a very good experience for me," said Li. "You know, it is big change for me, coming from England and growing up in England. I had to change many things.

"It's a different lifestyle, different type of football, different language, different people and culture. So, it's a big change, difficult at first, but I love China. I've loved every minute of the experience. Hopefully I can do better this year.

"I don't think it's taken too long to adapt to life in China because the club was great to me. The players also were very helpful, and the staff. They helped me settle in very quickly.

Li reckons having French coach Bruno Genesio at the Guo'an helm has helped him settle in.

"I think with the coach being European and the way he wanted to play wasn't difficult for me to adapt. Just a little bit different in games. But I think I adapted very quickly. I am pleased with my first year."

As well trying to help China reach a first World Cup finals since the 2002 edition, Li is also targeting glory with Guo'an.

Last season the capital club, which last lifted the CSL trophy in 2009, fell just two points short of ending eight-time champion Evergrande's dominance.

"It's mixed emotions," Li said of the 2019 campaign. "We had a very good season, we can be proud of what we achieved. But at the end the day we didn't win, we fell short by two points. It was frustrating but we have to take positives from here. And we look forward to challenging again this year."

Li pinpointed a lack of a killer instinct in front of goal for Guo'an's close call.

"I think in many games last year we had many, many chances. We dominated the game but we didn't score," he said. "The other team maybe scored a lucky goal or they won the game in the last minute or we drew the game in the last minute. So I think if we finish more of our chances this year we will take many more points."

The CSL has still yet to announce a kickoff date for the 2020 season, which has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many players, Li is raring for the action to start as soon as is safely possible.

"Mentally everybody has been asking the same question: When will the season start?" said Li. "But, physically, I've listened to the fitness coaches and tried to stick to the program as best we can to stay fit, to stay strong and healthy. And (listen to) the medical team, of course. So, yeah, we just keep going and keep looking forward.

"I hope I will play many games and help the team win as many games as possible. And I hope we can be challenging again for the title this year. Hopefully we have better luck to win the league, and also do well in the AFC Champions League. I just look forward to playing the game every week and hope we achieve something."

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