The 21-year-old, named best player at the Africa Cup of Nations, on his journey from playing for Wilmington Hammerheads in the US third division to being given an astonishing contract in China
Two years ago Christian Bassogog was earning £25 a week with Rainbow FC in the Cameroonian second division. Today he is an Africa Cup of Nations champion with Cameroon and, having been named as the best player at the recent tournament in Gabon, his weekly wage has rocketed to £60,000 after tax.
If Hollywood are making a movie about the rags-to-riches story of Jamie Vardy, the Leicester City and England striker, they should consider Bassogog for the sequel. The Cameroon manager, Hugo Broos, had not even heard of him until the early weeks of this season and he admits that he had Google to thank for flagging up his availability.“In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined what I have been able to achieve,” the 21-year-old winger says. “It’s hard for me to find the words to explain it. Even sometimes when I am going to sleep or when I am waking up, I ask myself: ‘What did I do to be where I am today?’ I am grateful for it but one of the things I know is that I still don’t believe it.”
Bassogog was at the Danish club, Aalborg, at the time, having joined them in August 2015 following a short spell with the Wilmington Hammerheads at the foot of the USA’s third division, and Broos gave him his international debut as an 82nd-minute substitute in the World Cup qualifier against Zambia on 12 November.
The Africa Cup of Nations from mid-January to early February had been billed as the stage for Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or the Ayew brothers. Instead it was Bassogog who became the talismanic figure, dazzling with his speed and skill. “When the coach gave me those 10 minutes or so against Zambia, I said to myself: ‘I am going to grab this with both hands’,” Bassogog says. “I took that attitude into the finals.”
Bassogog has taken it on into his latest assignment. On the back of his performances in Gabon there was a scramble for his signature with clubs including Schalke, Red Bull Leipzig, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Granada, CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow expressing their interest. Most of them had done so with a view to a summer transfer because their mid-season windows were closed. Then came the offer that would turn Bassogog’s life upside down.
It was from the Chinese Super League club, Henan Jianye and, with their window still open – and their season set to start in early March – they wanted him immediately. At first Bassogog was not keen. He was worried it was not a move for a young player, rather one towards the end of his career, and he knew it would entail upheaval on every level.
Bassogog prevaricated and, as he did so, Henan Jianye seemed to take it as a negotiating tactic. Initially they had offered him a net annual salary of €2m [£1.75m] but they would go up to €2.5m, €3m and then €3.5m.
Did they overpay? Undoubtedly. Bassogog had been blown away by the original contract offer. Did they care? No. The only thing that mattered to Henan Jianye was getting the deal done and, on 19 February, they could hand Bassogog the No10 shirt and parade him as their player. Aalborg received a fee of €6.8m – a club record.
The cynics have had a field day – as they have done with many foreign transfers into China. So, Christian, what was it that first attracted you to the multi-million pound contract at a club you had not previously heard of? The money is, indeed, breathtaking and Henan Jianye pay for all of Bassogog’s living expenses, as well, such as his five-star hotel suite and a second apartment close to the training ground.
The club’s other foreign players live at the same hotel and they have a chauffeur who takes them to and from training. When Bassogog was called up for Cameroon’s recent friendlies against Tunisia and Guinea, and the flights that were organised for him by the federation were not ideal, Henan Jianye paid €9,000 to book him on to better ones. It is all a long way from Rainbow FC, Bassogog’s boyhood club in Douala, or the Wilmington Hammerheads on Cape Fear in North Carolina, to where he moved in April 2015.
The financial clout of the Chinese Super League enables them to be extremely persuasive and Bassogog is in no position to deny that it played a part in his transfer. But he sees a bigger picture, which takes in the themes of personal advancement and globalisation, and which majors on the sporting challenge for which he has signed up.
“That is of more interest and relevance to me,” Bassogog says. “It is about rising to that challenge, as a young player, and knowing that, if I am successful in China, I would still be able to come to the very top levels of European football. I am a firm believer in the fact that there isn’t one path for making it to the top. Football is a truly global game and I have now played on four different continents. Who is to say that in the future I will not find myself in England, Spain or Germany?”
The wailing sounds that can be heard whenever a big-money transfer goes through to China have tended to come from the chairmen of European clubs. “The Chinese are inflating the market. How dare they!” Which conveniently overlooks the fact that the Premier League, for example, has been doing something similar for the past quarter of a century.
“It’s hypocritical,” Bassogog says. “And one thing I have also understood from being in China is that they bring in the big signings to raise the level of their local talent. They are doing this for the good of the game in their country; it’s not some misplaced thing. When I got to Henan Jianye, they made it clear that I was also there to lift the quality of those playing with me and against me.
“There are many doubters and they are very vocal but a lot of people – myself included – form opinions of China from a distance. The truth is that, unless you are actually in it, you wouldn’t really know what Chinese football is.”
So, what is it? Bassogog talks about how his matches so far have been “very tough physically” and how the atmospheres inside the stadia have been a little spiky. He mentions the big names. How could he not? His debut was against Ezequiel Lavezzi’s Hebei China Fortune but there are many others – among them, Carlos Tevez, Ramires, Oscar, Hulk, Jackson Martínez, Axel Witsel, Ricardo Carvalho and Graziano Pellè.
“Naturally these kind of stars were a big attraction for me,” Bassogog says. “Lavezzi is a player I’ve always liked so I was quite honoured to be on the same pitch as him.”
Bassogog attacks the various preconceptions and prejudices with relish, particularly the one about the standard of the football in China. “When you are on the ground, you realise it isn’t that easy,” he says. “You have to step up.” What stands out, though, is Bassogog’s description of the momentum that has built behind the league.
“What I know for a fact is that in three to four years it will definitely be a go-to league,” he says. “I feel it going in that direction. The league has the power to attract the big names – players of all ages – and it’s only logical that more and more will come. With that happening, the quality of the football will increase. The game is names; the game is football. So, if the football is good and the names are there, it can only become a more and more attractive proposition for global audiences.”
The reaction of Bassogog’s Cameroon team-mates to his move was revealing. “A lot of their questions were based on whether I was coerced into going,” he says. “One of the things I have done is make them understand that I chose to go there because I believed in the challenge. Maybe, me going there is showing that it isn’t all about what people think from the outside. Then, they ask me what it’s like and whether it could be good for them, as well.”
It is an open secret within the European game that scores of players would be interested in a move to China. There are negatives to factor in and Bassogog talks about how the language is “extremely difficult,” despite Henan Jianye providing an English translator. Others have complained about the levels of pollution and the travel to away matches.
It is also fair to suggest that loneliness must be considered, although most of the foreign players have friends and family with them. Tevez has a posse of 13 at Shanghai Shenhua. Bassogog has a friend with him at present while there are plans for one of his cousins to join him.
Bassogog has been assaulted by the culture shock but it has been in a good way. He speaks in awed tones about the sheer scale of Zhengzhou – the major city in Henan province – which has about 10 million inhabitants, more skyscrapers than Chicago and everything that money can buy. It is the cars, as much as anything else, that have taken his breath away – the Buicks, the Chryslers and how the traffic flows, mesmerically, around the clock.
“I am just drawn to my window every morning and I look down for five minutes,” Bassogog says. “In my whole life I have never seen so many cars. It is non-stop.”
When Bassogog looks out through the floor-to-ceiling glass, he sees a city that is in effect controlled by the football club. Henan Jianye are owned by the Henan Construction Company and they have built everything as far as the eye can see.
It is an example of the business model in Chinese football, where the government want the big companies to be central. They have granted tax incentives to get them on board and the companies have built stadia, created infrastructure and bankrolled the signing of players. The Chinese are world leaders in many sectors. Now they want in on football. The government has come to see the game as a part of Brand China.
Bassogog sees himself as a cog in the revolution and he has long been the sort of guy who makes things happen. At Aalborg he endured a nightmarish first season, when he started only one league fixture, but he dug deeper last summer to become a regular in the team. At the Africa Cup of Nations nobody gave Cameroon a prayer, especially after eight players had refused the call from Broos, including Liverpool’s Joël Matip and Schalke’s Eric Choupo-Moting. Their subsequent triumph sent the country into raptures. At Henan Jianye Bassogog is determined to make another statement.