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From Ivorian student to footballer in China – with help from coronavirus

Shanghai (AFP) – When Tobi Junior makes his debut in China’s second division it will be the realisation of a life-long dream stretched across three continents — with coronavirus giving an unusual helping hand.

The striker from the Ivory Coast earned his first professional football contract at the age of 25 when he joined Jiangxi Liansheng in China League One last month.

Proudly showing off the paperwork — the club say the deal is for six months initially — Junior described his journey from West Africa to China, punctuated by an aborted trial in Greece and a stint in England.

Junior once had a spell with Woodford Town in an amateur division that is eight rungs below the Premier League.

His other former clubs include an amateur team in Shanghai, where he was a hard-up student on a scholarship before graduating in international trade and economics in June. 

According to his account, Junior left the Ivory Coast for China in 2014 to learn the language and study, while also pursuing his dream of becoming a footballer.

“The most astonishing thing is, some foreigners (in China) were telling me it’s impossible for an amateur player or a student to become professional,” he told AFP by video call ahead of afternoon training with the club in southeast China.

“So I told them, ‘To you people it’s impossible, but to me it’s possible because I know who I am.'”

He says he sent “thousands of emails” to agents and managers, but found an unscrupulous world where some were only out to exploit those desperate to be footballers.

“They were telling me you have a long way to go to become a professional, we cannot help you,” he recalled.

“One even told me to forget about playing football.”

– ‘I’m not going anywhere’ –

Junior’s move to Jiangxi raised eyebrows among some who question why a professional team with home crowds of about 5,000 would want a player who has been knocking around amateur and student football.

That is where the coronavirus comes in. Junior considers China home, so when the virus emerged there late last year he was determined to stay.

“Everybody was running away from China so my family and some other people told me to leave,” he said.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not going anywhere. China gave me the opportunity to realise my dream.'”

China stopped most overseas visitors entering in March to prevent imported virus infections, meaning there were suddenly far fewer foreign footballers competing for contracts.

Junior was in the right place at the right time, even if the League One season is yet to start because of the pandemic.

Xie Yaohui, a senior official with Jiangxi, said that the club had wanted to sign two players from Brazil and a Swiss, but the travel restrictions made that impossible.

Xie said that they came across Junior via an agent and “there were very few options”.

But the forward is not there purely thanks to the coronavirus. 

Those who know Junior talk about his dedication — a coach in England called him “the hardest-working player I know” — and Jiangxi are pleased by what they have seen in training.

“He speaks Chinese very well and basically communicates in Chinese,” said Xie, praising Junior’s speed and potential, but adding that he needs to improve his finishing.

“We think that football should be open to all, and as long as he wants to play, we are willing to provide this kind of opportunity,” Xie added.

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