Jean Evrard Kouassi exhales and struggles for words to describe the journey he and his Wuhan Zall teammates have completed. Over the past week he has taken joy in the things that, for an Ivorian footballer living on the opposite side of the world, would usually serve as basic punctuation points in the day. Sleeping in his own bed, cooking his own food, watching his own television; the happiness in recovering these simple freedoms has been profound, even if he cannot stop his mind drifting to an experience that will never leave him. “This is a year I’ll never forget,” he tells the Guardian. “A very, very strange moment. Many things have happened to me that I will never forget in my life.”
It is hard to know where to start given that, until 18 April, Kouassi and his teammates had spent 104 days away from Wuhan. The end of their involuntary exile was facilitated after the city’s Covid-19 lockdown was lifted on 8 April, and they eventually returned to a rapturous welcome from several hundred supporters at the local railway station. “At this moment, I felt as if I was in the stadium again,” says Kouassi. Flickers of light appeared behind the eyes of a squad whose morale had long since hollowed.
Wuhan Zall had been in pre‑season training 520 miles away in Guangzhou when their home city, by then established as the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak, was put under quarantine on 23 January. It meant none of their players could return to visit family or friends before flying to Málaga and beginning a pre-season camp in the Costa del Sol six days later. They had been expected to travel back from Spain in mid-February – in time for the new Chinese Super League campaign – but that was postponed and, with nowhere to go, their stay was extended by a month.
The problem was that, as fears took hold in Europe, the name of Wuhan carried an inescapable stigma upon arrival. Their original hotel booking was cancelled and interaction with those outside the complex into which they eventually settled was, on a personal or professional level, sometimes impossible. “It was difficult in Spain, very difficult,” Kouassi says. “We had to wear club uniform when we went out, so it was obvious who we were and people looked at us very differently. Particularly the Chinese players, who had some bad experiences in supermarkets.
“It was hard for the coaching staff too. We trained, but nobody would play friendly games with us. Every week we wanted to play against someone, but couldn’t find an opponent. It meant the coach’s plans kept changing and he constantly had to think differently. And it affected the team because we were just training, one day, two days, three days. Everyone needs a bit of variety but instead it was all the same.”
If it was a test of strength for Zall’s five foreign players and their Spanish coach, José González, the weight upon the majority of the side was almost impossible to bear. Most of their Chinese players came from the Wuhan area and, in any case, the virus was spreading in other areas of the country too. The worry was too much and meant training sessions, conducted under a cloud nobody could shift, were often truncated.
“The atmosphere was very, very bad,” he says. “When we were training you could see the Chinese players didn’t want to be out there. They were very nervous and everything felt really strange. Every day news would come through from Wuhan and it was often bad; maybe someone would hear one of their relatives was sick. It was hard to play football so the coach tried to make the sessions shorter. We tried to keep ourselves happy, and every week we’d get a day off for some free time outside. But it was very tough, and especially for the Chinese guys.”
Kouassi describes how happy he felt for his teammates, much more than for himself, when their high-speed train pulled into Wuhan. Many were met by their families and that could not have seemed a more remote prospect when they were told to bed down for a longer spell in Europe. Kouassi was able to briefly visit family in Ivory Coast as training fizzled to a halt, but he was called back on 14 March. Spain was by now also in the grip of coronavirus and, to considerable relief, a return to China was deemed the safest course of action.
Yet there were still hurdles to confront and, for Kouassi, what followed was the bleakest period of all. The Zall squad flew to Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, and were immediately quarantined for a fortnight. Over that period he saw nothing but the bare walls of a hotel room. “Ahhhh … I call it a jail,” he says, gasping as he recalls the stifling boredom. “It was like being in jail. The quarantine was very difficult; one of those moments that will always stay with me. We could not go out for 14 days and it was so hard.”
He would do push‑ups and abdominal exercises but that, he admits, was about it in terms of physical activity or entertainment. It seemed to drag on forever, but the quarantine had its desired effect and Zall were cleared to recommence their pre-season campaign with a further camp near Guangzhou. They were then finally allowed to return home and, on Wednesday, trained in Wuhan for the first time since December.
“We’re given a blood test before training every day,” Kouassi says. “It’s very fast and everything is OK. I don’t feel Covid-19 affects our daily lives as footballers at the moment. If we respect the things we are asked to do, like wearing a mask when we go out and just travelling between home and training, everything can be all right.”
He describes a city that, in his words, is “not like before” but shows signs of returning to normality. Shops and restaurants are opening again; the streets are hardly teeming but, while the long-term ramifications remain uncertain, he sees more residents going about their normal business with each passing day. Like others in Wuhan, Kouassi has downloaded an app that scans a “green code” when entering a premises or using public transport, only allowing entry if the user is free of Covid-19 symptoms or recent contact with an infected person. “When we were away we heard a lot of things. But now we can see life is starting to be OK.”
It may only seem complete to Kouassi, a 25-year-old winger who has scored 34 goals in 72 appearances since joining the club in 2015, when he can play football again. Nobody knows when that will be, although a resumption has been mooted for June or July.
“First I just hope everything becomes normal in the world, not only in China.” He has seen, across three continents, how 2020 has been anything but ordinary.