“I felt broken,” he said. It was not just that he, like millions of others, would not be able to celebrate the most important day in the Chinese calendar with family. It was also the realization the virus was far more serious than he or any of his teammates had realized.
While some of his teammates were released, allowed to go home to cities that were unaffected by the Chinese government’s emergency measures, Yao and a dozen or so others from Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, had to make do with video calls to loved ones. In each one, the players tried to seem upbeat, not daring to reveal their worries for those sealed inside Wuhan.
A few days later, on Jan. 29, the team flew to Spain for a final camp, a final tuneup before the start of the new season on Feb. 22. By the time they arrived, Wuhan had become almost synonymous with the coronavirus. Photographers and camera crews met the team at the airport in Malaga, where José González, a Spaniard hired to coach Wuhan in January, held a news conference attempting to assuage concerns about their arrival.
González, who had arrived six days earlier to spend time with his family, could sense trouble was brewing. The regional government had been forced to issue a statement saying precautions would be taken with the Chinese team, that its presence would not imperil public health.
The message did not immediately get through.
A day before the team arrived, the hotel where it had reserved rooms suddenly canceled the bookings. Then the owner of the training field where the team was to hold its practice sessions said a Russian team that was using the adjoining field had complained; Wuhan Zall, he said, would have to find somewhere else to train.
The final insult arrived when teams from Scandinavia and Russia who had agreed to take part in preseason games canceled. Instead they chose to play against another team from China that was not from Wuhan.
“They thought the virus itself was coming,” said González, looking tired and wan, as he reflected on what he described as the most difficult months of his professional life. González, 53, had only been hired to coach Wuhan in January, and he has yet to oversee an official game, but he has become a calming presence, a point of reassurance, in the lives of players who, three months ago, had never heard of him.
The team’s arrival in Spain, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, worried locals.
Now the tables have turned; Spain’s prime minister declared a state of emergency Friday.
“I wasn’t in their situation,” the team’s Spanish coach, José González, said. “Now I am, and I am afraid.”
González told them not to take the reaction personally, that it was mostly a fear of the unknown. The players and staff members took the words to heart; after all, several acknowledged, many of them had shared the same fears as the virus started to spread.
“It’s like saying you come from a town, and the town is called Ebola,” said one team official, You Li.
The team’s latest signing, the French midfielder Eddy Gnahoré, said he remembered his exact words when his agent asked him in January if he would be interested in a transfer to Wuhan: No way.
Club officials persuaded Gnahoré by explaining how China was now coping better with the virus. But that didn’t stop friends from insisting that he not go. “They were telling me that I was going to die,” Gnahoré said.
More than a month later, he and a delegation of about 40 players, staff members and team officials are still in Spain, marooned.
While the club’s management decided it was best for everyone to remain in Spain as daily updates of how the virus was wreaking havoc in China poured in through phone calls, text messages and social media, that equation has changed as the coronavirus started to take a heavier toll in Spain — which now has more than 4,000 confirmed cases, second only to Italy in Europe — and strict measures by the Chinese government have begun to control its spread back home.
On Friday, Spain’s prime minister declared a state of emergency, giving the government the power to lock down cities, restrict the movement of citizens and ration goods.
“We were running away from a difficult situation in China,” González said, “and now we are running away from a difficult one in Spain.”
For now, the plan is to depart on Saturday. Since returning to Wuhan is still impossible, the team is planning to set up another camp in Shenzhen, in southeastern China. That means another hotel, another new training field, another wait. But before that, they will face a 15-day quarantine period.
The delay has made preparing the team to play moot. González said that, instead, he has used the training sessions as a way of distracting his squad from thoughts of home, of forging a team. The richer instruction in soccer can wait, he said.
“Imagine the idea of your family locked in their house day after day,” he said, puffing out his cheeks. “That is very, very difficult. Luckily, when they are playing football, they have a few hours a day when they can forget everything. The biggest smiles I have seen have been on the football field.”
González said nothing in his life could have prepared him for what he has had to oversee with Wuhan Zall. “I am accustomed to everything that happens on a football pitch, in the stadium, press conference, but this? Not this,” he said.
His approach has been to radiate positivity, to imbue his players with the message that they cannot do anything for the people of Wuhan beyond being prepared to take to the field and give them back some joy once the doors of the city reopen.
Soon, said Yao, the midfielder, it will be the team that will need to support their coach. With Spain struggling to cope with the spread of the coronavirus, González admitted he fears for his family, his four sons, his mother and his two sisters, who he said are heavy smokers. On Friday morning, González went to say his goodbyes.
He said the experience of being a part of Wuhan Zall, and of Wuhan by extension, has already changed him. “It will be difficult for me,” he said of the day he will finally get to lead out his team onto the field. “I’ll be thinking about how much people have suffered.”
For Yao, returning to Wuhan will mean something more. It will mean giving his son all of the toys he has picked up during his time away. Seeing his wife, his mother. And eating that first bowl of noodles.
“Perhaps,” he said, “I will be hugging my wife and holding my son while eating the noodles.”
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