A multi-talented athlete. A level-headed individual. Young but wise beyond his years. Friendly and confident. ''I know what I’m capable of,'' says Manuel Akanji. ''But I try not to overestimate myself.'' He is a guy who knows what he wants, and where he comes from.
Travel north-east of Zurich and you will find Winterthur, the sixth-largest city in Switzerland with a population of 113,000. Continue north-east and you’ll come across Wiesendangen, a small community of some 6,000 inhabitants. It was here that Manuel Obafemi Akanji was born on 19 July 1995. It was here that he was raised by his parents. And it was here that he learnt how to play football – and prepared for life.
As a young boy, he "played football with friends, during break times, after school". His sporting role models came from within his own family. His Nigeria-born father Abimbola – "his nickname is Abi, that's easier" – still plays football and tennis today. His mother Isabelle is also an active tennis player, while sister Michelle, six years his elder, is an athlete and Sarah, who is two years older, played for FC St. Gallen in the top tier of the Swiss women's football.
Away from sport, he has completed an apprenticeship in business – thus following in the footsteps of his father, who works for a large Swiss technology company. "That was very important for both my parents and me. You never know what will happen in a football career. You don't have control over everything," says the young man: "That's why it's important to have another string to your bow. I completed my education, and since then, I've only been concentrating on football."
Akanji has been a mainstay in the Switzerland national team for a long time now: he started all four of his country’s matches in the 2018 World Cup. He’s also managed to establish himself in the Bundesliga. Akanji possesses above-average footballing abilities for a defender, while his speed means he is comfortable out on the flanks too.
2017 saw him win his first senior cap and get his first taste of top-level European competition with FC Basel. With Akanji at the heart of defence, the perennial Swiss title winners made it through to the Round of 16 in the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League. The up-and-coming young defender featured in the group stage clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford (''I had goose bumps as I ran out on the pitch,'') and also played a starring role in the home fixture, in which Basel upset the English giants 1-0. Akanji is a tough tackler and, as many experts have observed, possesses an uncanny ability to build the play. Akanji operates intelligently, not overconfidently, and has great communication skills: he speaks English, French and German, and can thus converse with almost all of his international team-mates. ''Spanish is the only one that’s missing."
You might have expected languages to be his favourite subject at school, but Akanji also has an enviable talent for mathematics. His head multiplies faster than a pocket calculator and, ever since making an appearance on a Swiss TV show, he has built up a reputation as something of a maths genius. "I always enjoyed mental arithmetic from an early age," reveals Akanji: "I was just good at it." Whenever he’s asked to multiply two numbers between 11 and 99, the correct answer comes flying out like a shot from a gun. 24 x 75? ''Sure, 1800.'' Back when the classic entertainment show ''Wetten, dass…?'' (Wanna bet, that...?) was still on German TV channel ZDF, his friends used to joke that he should apply to go on . Akanji would always politely decline: ''The maths geniuses who work with millions of dollars are in a different league to myself. I’m better off staying at this level.''
Akanji’s footballing development has unquestionably been bolstered by his athletic talent. Growing up, he was almost always the fastest player on his team and used to regularly play as a wing forward ''until the age of 15 or 16. Everyone else had their growth spurts early, that’s why I moved to full-back.'' Once he had developed physically, a further positional change followed – to the heart of defence. ''It’s my best position, but with a bit of practice I feel like I could play elsewhere.'' He has already proved as much during his BVB career: in his first half-season at the club – the second half of 2017/18 – he often lined up at left-back, where he impressed with his performances.
By now, he has earned a high degree of sporting recognition. Michael Zorc has labelled Akanji a "pretty complete" centre-back who "possesses good stature, is strong in the air and very quick". What instantly struck the sporting director is the Swiss international's organisational abilities: he can marshal a defence, adapting and shifting the defensive line according to the situation. "That's what makes him so valuable," said Zorc. In the 2018/19 Bundesliga season, Akanji boasted one of the lowest misplaced pass percentages in the entire league (just 6 percent). In 2019/20, he won a good 62 percent of his tackles. In challenges on the ground, that figure rose to an outstanding 66 percent. Across the 29 Bundesliga fixtures last season he committed only 10 fouls – and he has been cautioned on only five occasions in his 65 German top flight appearances to date.
''I approach a lot of things in life with a relaxed attitude,'' he says of himself. Pushing boundaries isn’t really his thing. Or is it? ''It depends. When it comes to sport, I’m always trying to break new ground. But off the pitch, I’m not into taking risks. That just causes problems.'' It was with this typical straightness that he proposed to his girlfriend Melanie, whom he married in June 2019. Many of his team-mates at club and international level attended the wedding ceremony.