GUANGZHOU (AFP) - Nico Yennaris became the first foreign-born footballer to represent China when the former Arsenal reserve started in a 2-0 home win over the Philippines on Friday (June 7).
The 26-year-old midfielder was born in London and was an England youth international, but his mother is Chinese and the country is looking to naturalise footballers to rapidly improve its fortunes on the pitch.
Yennaris, who never broke through at Premier League club Arsenal, moved to Chinese Super League leaders Beijing Guoan at the start of the year and swapped nationalities from British to Chinese.
Known in China as Li Ke, there has been intense interest in his assimilation and he is having Mandarin lessons - he still gives interviews in English but appeared to have learnt the words to the national anthem.
The friendly against the Philippines in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou was also notable for the return as coach of Marcello Lippi.
The 71-year-old Italian World Cup winner left the post at the end of January after a 3-0 defeat by Iran in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup.
But following a failed stint by compatriot Fabio Cannavaro, Lippi is back at the helm and targeting qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Yennaris, who spent five years at Brentford in England's second tier before moving to Beijing, was among eight changes from the Lippi side beaten by Iran.
The Philippines, ranked 124th in the world in Fifa's rankings, were obliging guests.
China, ranked 74th but with big ambitions under football-fan President Xi Jinping, deservedly went ahead in the 14th minute when midfielder Wu Xi prodded past Denmark-born goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard.
Midfielder Zhang Xizhe made it 2-0 on 54 minutes after more poor Philippine defending and Yennaris, who enjoyed a solid debut at the base of the hosts' midfield, was substituted a minute later.
The Philippines were reduced to 10 men soon after when Daisuke Sato earned a second yellow card.
China host Tajikistan in another friendly on Tuesday as they build up to qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. They begin in the autumn.
Lippi is reportedly eager to have the China-based Brazilian forwards Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart naturalised in time for them.
However, while Chinese football fans are supportive of Yennaris, many have expressed deep scepticism about doing the same with players who have no Chinese ancestry.