Beijing: It has been a whirlwind 18 months for England-born midfielder Li Ke, who moved to Beijing FC last January before taking up Chinese citizenship and making his debut under FIFA World Cup winner Marcello Lippi. He tells the-AFC.com about his new life in China PR.
Li Ke admits to being apprehensive the first time he was called up for the China national team, when the former Arsenal and Brentford midfielder was included by Marcello Lippi in his squad to face the Philippines in Guangzhou last June.
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Five months after arriving in China as Nico Yennaris, the former England youth international was suiting up for his mother’s homeland having adopted a new name to go with his revised nationality.
The 27-year-old was the first overseas-born player of Chinese descent to find his way into the national squad as officials within the Chinese Football Association sought to enhance the pool of players available for the country’s attempt to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in two decades.
“It’s the first time it’s ever happened and I was a little bit nervous at first but, you know, it’s a great honour for me to be called up to the team, and to be the first player to represent the country, to be foreign-born,” he tells the-AFC.com.
“It was a little bit of a challenge but again it was a great experience for me and I am very proud and honoured.
“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, they’ve made it easy for me.”
Since making his debut in that 2-0 win over the Azkals, Li has featured five times for China and was also included in the squad new head coach Li Tie called up in May for a training camp to test players’ fitness during the continuing Chinese Super League suspension.
Language struggles aside, his assimilation into life in China has been seamless and after impressing in his first campaign for Beijing Li is hopeful of making further improvements in the 2020 campaign once it kicks off.
“I found my first year in China to be a very good experience for me,” he says. “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. I think with the coach being an 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.”
A key target for Li and his teammates in 2020 will be ending the capital club’s 11-year drought in the CSL. Beijing’s most recent league title came in 2009, making last season’s near-miss behind Guangzhou Evergrande particularly disappointing for the club’s fans.
Beijing impressed early in the season as, under Roger Schmidt, they set the pace in the CSL before falling away in the summer. Schmidt was replaced by Frenchman Bruno Genesio but, although Beijing’s form improved, they failed to overhaul Fabio Cannavaro’s side.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Li says 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 and we challenge again this year.
“I think in many games last year we had many, many chances. We dominated the game but we don’t score. The other team maybe scored a lucky goal or they won the game at 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. And this will be good for us.”
To that end Beijing have signed former Guangzhou striker Alan Carvalho and the Brazil-born forward will not only bring his experience of winning the CSL title to the club but will also add his knowledge of success in the AFC Champions League.
Beijing missed out on progressing beyond the group phase of last year’s competition but started the 2020 season with a 1-0 win over Thailand’s Chiangrai United before the competition was halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Li is relishing the return of the continental competition, which he missed last year having not been registered as a member of the Beijing squad.
“The standard of football is very high, we see some of the teams from different countries they play very good football, and are very difficult teams to beat,” he says of the competition. “I didn’t get to participate last year, but I am looking forward to this year and hoping that we can do well with the team this year in the competition.
“It’s been very difficult with the coronavirus situation. We came back at the beginning of the year, we started the pre-season, then we stopped, and then we started again, and then we stopped, so it’s been difficult."
“Mentally everybody has been asking the same question: ‘When will the season start?’ But physically I’ve listened to the fitness coaches and tried to stick to the programme 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.”
Photos: AFP, Chinese Football Association
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