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.”