The second top scorer in the Persian Gulf Pro League is French, and his name is Kevin Yamga (8 goals after 20 rounds). Arrived in October in Esteghlal from Denmark, the 25-year-old striker made everyone agree by slamming a double from the start. It didn’t take much to seduce fans won over even before his signature. Immediately adopted, the player trained in Chievo will perhaps even reach eternity if the Tehran club, leader with three points ahead of Persepolis, retains its first place until the end of the championship…
I started football in Montigny-lès-Cormeilles. I moved to Cergy, then Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, and that’s where I was spotted by recruiters from Chievo. That’s how I came to Verona when I was 14. The club trained young people very well, we won the under-23 championship in 2012-2013. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my chance in the first team. Chievo was for years the oldest team in Europe, the coaches in place relied heavily on experience. When you are Italian champion under 23, you beat Juve, Inter, Milan. Despite this, the following year, no player made it to the first team, they were all sent on loan.
“With Zeman, on Monday, we didn’t touch the ball. It was running for 45 minutes, then you were going to the bleachers doing stair jumps for about 20 minutes. »
How did you experience this sequence of loans, which introduced you to five clubs between 2015 and 2018?
It really wasn’t easy. In 2017, I was to go to Ascoli, in Serie B. They were waiting for an opening to recruit me; it didn’t happen. In the last hour of the transfer window, I finally sign at Carpi. I arrive there in somewhat strange conditions, it didn’t feel like the coach was making all the decisions. It didn’t go well, I was barely playing. I managed to leave for Pescara in the middle of the season, where (Zdenek) Zeman was the coach. I liked his idea of football, even if the training sessions were exhausting. On Monday, we did not touch the ball. It was running for 45 minutes without touching the ball, then you would go to the stands and do some stair jumping for about 20 minutes. It was tough physically, but I played the first four games with him. And then he gets fired, and I don’t play at all. Italian clubs make a lot of the choice to lend young people at all costs so that they gain experience. I don’t find it necessarily productive, but it was my trajectory, it’s also what helped me grow.
You returned to France for a season in Châteauroux in 2018-2019. Wasn’t it too weird to come back after so many years in Italy?
It did me good. I wasn’t too far from Paris, it allowed me to come home at the weekend, to see my family and my friends more often. I have some regrets about my season because I was slowed down by an injury, it made me waste a lot of time. I still played a lot of matches, so I remain satisfied with my passage. We had a quality group, I tried to get everything I could from my teammates: the movement and positioning of Christophe Mandanne, the work ethic of Grégory Bourillon, etc. In training, it was quite competitive. With Greg, either I passed or I took small cleats. It had been a long time since I had known a French locker room, it was good to find teammates with the same culture. I happened to say words in Italian on the pitch, by reflex. And it can still happen to me today. (Laughs.) After seven years in Italy, there is a bit of Italian in me.
How did you react the first time your agents told you about Iran?
Honestly, I wasn’t that interested. Afterwards, I inquired. I had the chance to discuss upstream with the assistant coach, who is Italian. I learned that the club plays in the Asian Champions League and has a lot of supporters. It changed the game, my apprehensions were lifted. I have known clubs that mainly played maintenance, I wanted to experience something different.
The financial aspect is also taken into account?
It is clear, what I touch here is superior to what I have known in Europe since the beginning of my career.
Sportingly, going from Danish D1 to Iranian D1 is not a regression?
For me, the level is good here. Moreover, Portugal recruits a lot in Iran. I don’t see it as a regression because in Portugal, I was in a club which played maintenance and which went bankrupt. In Denmark, my club also played maintenance. I find myself in a club that is playing for the title, we are in the lead and still undefeated. Without some administrative problems, we should also have played the Asian Champions League (Esteghlal was declared ineligible by the AFC, which validates the qualification of clubs according to sporting, administrative and financial criteria, Editor’s note).
“Clubs are only allowed three foreign players, so there are high expectations. If I satisfy them and I feel good here, why not stay for the long term. »
How are the fans?
Very hot. The day I have to travel to Iran, I’m in the car to reach the airport, and my phone starts vibrating non-stop, I receive hundreds and hundreds of messages. I open Instagram and I see all the supporters who welcome me, even though I hadn’t even signed yet. I wasn’t even on the plane yet! I had to turn off all notifications, my phone was freaking out. My second game here, we’re going to play away and when we arrived at the hotel, we had to wait in the bus for at least an hour before we could go out because there were so many fans. I was taking videos, it was crazy, but beautiful. I had never seen so much enthusiasm in my career. It’s very motivating.
So Iran is a good surprise for you?
A very pleasant surprise. Tehran is full of beautiful places and ultimately it’s not much different from life in Europe. I traveled to a few cities outside and it’s really a country where you find all the landscapes, both the sea and the mountains as well as the desert. I have adapted well here. Clubs are only allowed three foreign players, so there are high expectations. If I satisfy them and I feel good here, why not stay for the long term.
How do you manage the language barrier?
Persian is a complicated language. I know how to say a few words like “hello” or “how are you”. I know how to count to ten and I know colors, things like that. A lot of people speak English, so I manage to get by.
“I watch a lot of videos to prepare for post-football. Instead of spending the day playing Play, I can use that time to learn. »
What do you do with your free time?
I go out from time to time to walk around town, eat with teammates… There are plenty of nice places in town. Right next to Iran Mall, the biggest mall in Asia, there is a small lake with lots of restaurants and cafes, it’s really nice when the weather is nice. When I’m at the hotel, sometimes I play Play with my friends. I also watch a lot of videos to prepare for after-football. It can be real estate, catering, investing in the stock market… I’m not yet sure what I want to do later, so I’m looking at a bit of everything to give me ideas and then to have the choice. Instead of spending the day playing Play, I can use that time to learn and be ready when I want to do something else.
You finished your first match with a bandage on your head after an air shock. Did the Iranian defenders welcome you well?
Immediately, I was put in the bath! But it was a good first game for me, as I managed to score two goals. The defenders are pretty rough. They are perhaps a little less physically structured than in Ligue 2 or in the Danish championship, but they are very aggressive. Finishing matches with small ankle injuries has become a habit.
In Portugal and Denmark, you played on the side. How did you find yourself in this position, you who are an offensive player by profession?
At CD Aves, I played winger and, our two right wingers being injured, I helped out. I had a very good match, I had even been named in the standard team of the week. Afterwards, I chained the matches to this position. At first it was a little unnatural, but I adapted.
Did you manage to have fun as a full-back?
I can say yes because I was an attacking side, I went up a lot, I split. Maybe a little less in Portugal, because I was new to this position, I was trying to get used to it and ensure defensively. On the other hand, in Denmark, my coach wanted rising full-backs, so I managed to be attacking. I was not just content to defend. It brought me the knowledge of an additional position on the pitch, and footballingly, it’s always a plus.
“It’s an exciting challenge to experience. That’s what I was looking for when I came here: to start each match to win it, to experience draws as well as defeats. »
Finding a role as an attacker was one of your conditions for signing at Esteghlal?
No way. Initially, I had to play piston in a defense with five. In a team playing the title, it’s a very attacking role. Finally, I found myself in an even more attacking position, either winger or second striker, and I like that too. In my youth, I was inspired a lot by Thierry Henry. Even though I had been playing lower for a year and a half, I managed to switch back because I have played most of my career in these positions. Automatically, it comes back quickly.
What if your full-backs get injured?
(Laughs.) I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t happen, but if one day I have to help out because we don’t have any full-backs, I will. Sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself to help the team.
You’ve scored three penalties this season and according to Transfermarkt, you haven’t missed a single one since the start of your career. It’s true ?
It’s true, yes! I try to watch the keeper, to see if he anticipates. There is not necessarily a secret, it’s training.
Any advice for Lionel Messi?
(Laughs.) I think it’s rather Lionel Messi who would have advice to give me!
Score regularly and fight for a championship title, what does it represent after the difficulties you have experienced?
It is an exciting challenge to experience. That’s what I was looking for when I came here: to start each match to win it, to experience draws as well as defeats. My first objective is to keep our first place until the end of the season and to lift the Iranian champion trophy. The title of top scorer? It would be a plus. I was still playing defender this fall, so it would be amazing, but football is amazing.
Interview by Quentin Ballue