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Ready and waiting for China's call

By JAMES BOYLAN | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-10 09:49

UK-born, US-based Leon Jones keen to join nation's naturalized ranks

By his own admission, Leon Jones' career path has been unconventional so far.

Born in Glasgow, the centerback spent his youth career at Edinburgh-based Hearts and now finds himself continuing his soccer education in the American college system, with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Venturing beyond Europe is unusual enough for a young British player but Jones apparently isn't done globe-trotting yet, with the 22-year-old now dreaming of pulling on the red of Team China.

"My mum's from Hong Kong so the opportunity to go and play there (in China) might be an option for me," Jones told Scottish outlet the Daily Record.

"The game in China is getting bigger now. A few players from Europe with Chinese heritage are now in the Super League.

"So that might be an option for me. They (the Chinese Football Association) have been in touch-I sent my CV and video clips-and they seem quite interested."

Jones wouldn't be the first British-born player to represent China's national team. Nico Yennaris, who also has a Chinese mother, departed London club Brentford for Beijing Guo'an in 2019 after being granted Chinese citizenship and changing his name to Li Ke.

On May 30 last year, the Arsenal academy product became the first naturalized player to suit up for China and now a year later has five caps to his name.

The CFA, though, is adopting an cautious approach with the naturalization policy, and while a handful of other players have become Chinese citizens, Brazil-born Ai Kesen, aka Elkeson, is the only other import to have actually played for the national team.

Jones is excited at potentially joining those ranks-not least because he'd love to do mom proud.

"Not a lot of people know that I'm half-Chinese because I played in the Scottish national team setup all the way through (the youth teams)," Jones said.

"It would be a great experience and opportunity. And it would be great for my mum. I'm proud of that part of my heritage, it's not something I try to hide.

"But nothing's happened for me yet. I still need to work hard and make sure I do the right things."

That sort of attitude could go a long way to aiding Jones' Chinese ambitions should he eventually make it to the CSL.

Concerns have been raised that some foreign players are in China merely for the money after Brazil-born Fernandinho went AWOL for Guangzhou Evergrande during preseason this year.

The 27-year-old has since built bridges with Evergrande and vowed to "turn over a new leaf". However, the episode has left fans understandably skeptical about the naturalization strategy, which is ultimately designed to boost China's chances of qualifying for the World Cup.

When it comes to discipline, Jones certainly talks a good game.

"Being at an American college, it can be a bit like the movies during spring break-there are parties going on everywhere," he said.

"So you need to concentrate on what you want to do and not follow the crowd. That way, you don't get distracted and mixed up in the bad stuff.

"There are a lot of distractions but it's up to you as an individual to keep your eyes on the prize."

Jones, who is studying chemical engineering, is determined to make the most of his time Stateside.

Last year, he helped the Wildcats win a conference title and conference tournament before they lost to Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals.

However, he admits he has had second thoughts about his decision to leave Hearts, who had offered him a one-year contract to stay at Tynecastle.

"I try to keep tabs on boys I played with back home," said Jones."When you look at where you are and who they're playing against, it's not as attractive as over here or the opportunities you can get from playing football in America.

"It can be like a goldfish bowl environment in Scotland, but there's so much more out there if you take a step back and open your eyes.

"Some boys are scared to go abroad, leaving their friends and family. They're scared to take that jump into the unknown-and that's what it felt like for me.

"But sometimes in life you just have to take the plunge and hope it works out for you."

Whether or not Jones ends up in China, his American gamble appears to be paying off.

"I still want to become a pro footballer. That drive and ambition I had as a 7-year-old going to Hearts has never died. I'm still as enthusiastic and determined to make it," he added.

"I'm just taking a different path to what a lot of people in Scotland might take."

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