Astronomical transfer fees on big names has seen the Chinese Super League dominate world football headlines this year but one of the biggest impacts made by a foreign player in China has come from a complete unknown. Last year, Bubacarr Trawally was just 20 when he joined one of China’s footballing outposts – Yanbian Funde, an ethnic Korean club situated barely 30 minutes from the North Korean border.
His new side had just escaped relegation to the third tier of Chinese football only due to another club ceasing to exist and were expected to battle to stay in China League One again. Instead, an incredible turnaround saw the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture club win the title and promotion to the CSL, where they currently defy all expectations and sit mid-table and well-clear of several clubs with exponentially higher transfer budgets.
In an expansive and exclusive interview, Bubacarr, better known as Steve, talks of life in Yanji city, signing for Yanbian almost by accident, the CSL’s African contingent, Didier Drogba’s China legacy, making his international debut, his days with his old club in The Gambia, and speaking his indigenous language with Shenhua striker Demba Ba of Senegal.
This season Yanbian have really confounded everyone’s expectations and are flying high in the league. How do you rate your contribution to the team, and why has the team done better than everyone thought they would this season?
I think I have a modest contribution to the team but then it is not a job only done by me. Because if you look at the team, I score goals, Kim Seung-dae, Yoon Bit-garam and Ha Tae-goon all do as well, so together with them and the rest of the squad, we have developed a very good combination and there is this unity in the team that we all do have, that I believe is why we are doing better than people expect because where there is unity, there is success.
I have said this several times and I will say it again! I honestly was not supposed to play for Yanbian, it was another team in League One, Wuhan Zall, but I think they didn’t have the confidence in me and decided not to sign me, that’s why I’m happy I got promoted to Super League with Yanbian and they stayed in League One! Haha…
I was looking forward to going back to Hangzhou Greentown after I joined Yanbian because I believed I had a future there and I still am close to the team with players like Anselmo Ramon and Davy Angan. When I came to Yanbian, the team was not actually looking to get promoted, the aim was to maintain ourselves and stay up in League One but after some matches, we knew we can dream for promotion and thankfully, we’ve achieved that dream after working hard. During the season, the coach, Park Tae-ha, instilled some confidence in me and gave me my chances until I could score 17 goals for the team, the fans decided to campaign for my stay, everyone at the team wanted me to stay including the president and coaches. I didn’t know where my faith was hence I still have contract with Hangzhou, so I left to go to my country, Gambia, not knowing where my future lies, but my agent told me Yanbian want me to stay and asked if I want the same too, it was straightforward “YES” for me, so I was wishing they could agree terms regarding me, next minute, I became a full time player of Yanbian, excitement of which I can’t describe. But I want to thank the fans and the team for their confidence in bringing me into this great club and offering me the chance to play regular and good football.
Yanji is said to be one of China’s biggest football cities – do you walk around town much? Do you get recognized? Do you see many fans wearing the team’s shirts? How would you describe the city’s level of support for it’s club?
I don’t walk around the town much because it’s hard to move around when everyone recognizes you, haha. Of course people recognize me and they know me, I get stopped for pictures, autographs and people just wanting to start a conversation with me in the streets. To be honest, I cannot thank the people of Yanji for their support to me as a person, they have been great and I can only hope it continues. The support for Yanbian is massive, because being the only professional club in the area, we have everyone around come support us, our stadium are normally full in home matches and that alone, means something to us the players because in football, without fans support, it’s normally boring to play in.
The fans love you at Yanbian. Have you been surprised by the level of support that Yanbian has? What did you expect before coming here?
I was not surprised about the amount of love I receive and still continue to receive from the Yanbian fans. Honestly, I just cannot stop thanking them, they are part of the player I am and virtually made me reach this level where I am, so I will always be grateful. I am a creative footballer and I know that’s the style of play that most fans want, win but entertain, so I give them that and it’s only natural that their love comes in.
In Chinese society people often discuss people’s appearance or the colour of their skin. Does this bother you? Have you ever been in a situation where you were uncomfortable because of this or felt you were subject to racist comments or such like?
To be honest, in Yanbian, I have never faced that and never faced that with our fans also. My team, city and the fans are one of the best and they don’t involve in such, so massive respect to them for that. Outside Yanji as a whole, I don’t know because I don’t pay much attention to that because I don’t even understand the language much. It was only one time in the pitch when I had to be sent off and suspended for something someone said to me on the pitch which in my country and culture is disrespectful and nasty to say, so I responded with a gesture and I had to be banned for four matches, I was told it is normal to say those things here, so I have learned from it and life goes on for me.
In recent years there have been more and more African players coming to play in China. Did you seek any advice from any of them before making your decision to come?
To be honest, I didn’t seek any advice from any African player before coming to China. I was supposed to go to Europe but things didn’t go as expected, when I found out about Hangzhou wanting me to go on trial and later on sign, I just had to ask my PR Manager back in The Gambia, Modou Lamin Beyai, to research for me about Chinese football, the life and culture of the country and how professional it is, he came back telling me some nice things and I just wanted to give it a try. Honestly, many people back home never supported my move here, but now, that’s history and virtually they all watch the Chinese Super League now, hahaha.
Which African players do you think have made the biggest impact in China?
I think the African players with the biggest impact in China would be Didier Drogba, Frédéric Kanouté, Seydou Keita and Yakubu Aiyegbeni, those are the ones I will say created a name for us African players and made us gain more recognition, particularly Drogba, so respect to them for opening the Chinese doors for us!
Since you first came to China you made your international debut for The Gambia. Were you expecting this at such an early stage in your career, and did you think coming to play in China would harm your chances?
I knew I was eventually going to play for my national team! I believe in my qualities and abilities as a player, I am a well rated player in The Gambia and people were even calling for my inclusion in the national team even before coming to China. I was with the Gambia U20 during my days at Real de Banjul and it was only a matter of time before a senior call-up came. I will credit Yanbian and our coach for the chance he’s given me for me to be seen and called up by my country but with our without China, I knew I was going to play for the national team.
Tell us about your hometown club Real de Banjul. How does it compare to Yanbian? How is the support for local football in Gambia? How did it feel when you left home to come to play in China?
Real de Banjul is a great club and the best in The Gambia without a doubt! I am sure with time; it will turn to be a top team in West Africa or the entire continent as a whole. The support for local football is not strong because the fans don’t turn out much in matches but then when we play, I remember we had one of the best teams during my time at Real de Banjul where I played with Bubacarr Sanneh, now in AC Horsens in Denmark, Lamin Jallow in Chievo Verona, Alhagie Bah in Santos in South Africa, just to name a few, that was a strong team and we won the league and other cups that was there to win, even though the local support for football wasn’t there but we had a good support and people back home loved us and come watch our matches. The transition from Gambia to China wasn’t easy because like I said earlier, people there were sceptical about my move to China, even my own family members, but now that I came, I saw and I conquered, everybody back home wants to come and play in this country or follow the football. The support of the Chinese league is now growing there and I hope it continues.
Do you have any close friendships with other foreign players at Yanbian or playing at other clubs in China? What things do you typically talk about with them?
Yes, I have a close relationship with our defender, Nikola Petković, a very nice and down to earth gentle man. I look at him as an elder brother and we talk about everything virtually. He normally gives me advice on life, how to become a player for Europe, virtually everything that is relevant, we hang out and have fun, so I respect him a lot for that. I am also close to Angan and that was during my Hangzhou times, recently Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, though we just speak our Wollof language when our teams meet but the one I am closest to is Nikola.
What do you think foreign players most dislike about the Chinese Super League?
I don’t think I can answer that question for other players, sorry, because everyone has their own likes and dislikes and I can only speak for myself. But what I dislike is maybe the long travels between cities to go and play matches, it’s like travelling from continent to continent, hahaha. But that’s normal still and if I am honest, I am yet to see anything I dislike about the Chinese Super League, I still think it’s a good league and I like how things are done.
How long do you see yourself staying at Yanbian? Is the Chinese Super League a good “shop window” for young African players looking to start their career abroad?
I will be in Yanbian for as long as the team wants me, hahaha. Anyway, what I know is that I am here in the team, I am happy here in the club, I see myself staying for a while but then this is football, you never know what can happen tomorrow. And yes, the Chinese Super League is a good “shop window” for the African players, I will recommend the clubs in the Super League or League One and Two sign African players particularly from The Gambia, because believe me, there is a lot of talent back home, what they just need is the chance to showcase themselves. I know it will be difficult hence all the teams here like signing “big name” players but why waste a huge amount of money on some of those players when you can have a young and skillful African player who can deliver a lot more for half the amount you pay getting that “big name”?
What is the strangest thing that has happened to you since you arrived in China?
The strangest thing that has happened is people called me “Stevon” instead of Steve, hahaha. This is something that has been happening since my days at Hangzhou though and I don’t think I can change it. But then I actually struggled with the culture in my first few weeks and probably months here because in my country, we greet everyone with “Hello, Hi, Good morning or Good afternoon”, and when someone does something for us, we say “Thank you” but it’s a bit different here, so that was something I find surprising but now used to it, lol. The food was a problem though one positive was there’s rice just like The Gambia because we Africans love rice! But the weather, environment, the fans turnout and the way how they are passionate and support their team, was all something different for me because I had that in my country but not like here or since when I turned professional! The huge time difference was also another issue because I’m a young person and I always like being close to my family and the only way I could do that was to be talking to them on phone every time but with this time difference, sometimes I used to call them and they’ll be sleeping while I am awake or sometimes I’ll be sleeping and they are up, it was all very strange but alright now.
Finally, have you a message for anyone back in The Gambia or the fans in Yanbian which you would like to say?
To the fans back home in The Gambia, I will like to thank them for their continuous support and prayers for me. I get positive reactions every time I upload something on Twitter or my Facebook pages that is something I cannot repay them for. And for the Yanbian fans, let them continue supporting us as a team as that’s what we need from them and God willing, we will continue making them proud in this adventure that we are on in the Super League. We surpassed their expectations last season by qualifying to this division, with the way how the boys and everyone in the team is focused, you can never tell what next we can deliver for them, so I will say keep supporting and we will continue making you all proud!
WEF would like to thank Steve for taking the time to share his fascinating experiences with us.