A multi-talented athlete. A level-headed individual. Young, but blessed with wisdom beyond his years. Friendly and confident. ''I know what I’m capable of,'' says the Swiss defender, going on to add: ''But I try not to overestimate myself.'' Manuel Akanji is complex yet clear in his thoughts. He knows what he wants and knows 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 how to prepare for life.
As a young boy, he "played football with friends, during the break, after school." His sporting role models came from within the family. His father Abimbola, born in Nigeria - "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 league.
Manuel Akanji is either 24 years old or young; it’s often hard to tell with people who find themselves in the limelight of public attention and thus (have to) mature faster than their peers. The Swiss international certainly comes across as mature. He is intelligent, reflective and polite, with good manners and a polished choice of words: "I got this from my parents. I was always taught that nothing can be taken for granted. No success in the world would ever give me the right to become arrogant.''
In addition to the sporting side of things, Akanji 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 leg to stand on. I managed to complete 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 excellent all-round footballing technique for a defender, while his speed also allows him to play out on the flanks. 2017 saw him win his first senior cap and also 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 of the UEFA Champions League. The up-and-coming young defender played in the group phase encounter away to Manchester United at Old Trafford (''I had goosebumps as I ran out on the pitch,''), while also playing a starring role in the home fixture, in which Basel managed to upset the English giants 1-0. Akanji is strong in the tackle and, as many experts have observed, possesses an uncanny ability to open up the play. He operates with intelligence and rarely gets himself into tricky situations.
It was therefore a logical choice – though it still came as "slightly surprising" to him – to name the central defender as the representative of the younger generation in the BVB Team Council. Akanji has remarkable language skills: he speaks English, French and German, and is thus able to communicate with almost every member of what is a very international squad. ''Spanish is the only one that’s missing." You might expect that languages must have been 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 TV in Germany, 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 winger ''until the age of 15 or 16. Everyone else had their growth spurts early, but then mine came and that’s when I moved to full-back.'' Once he became fully formed physically, a further positional change followed: to the heard of defence. ''It’s my best position, but with a bit of practice I feel like I could play anywhere.'' He has already proved as much during his BVB career: in his first half-season at the club - the second round of 2017/18 - he often lined up at left-back, where he won plaudits for his performances. In sporting terms, he has earned high recognition in his 18 months in the Bundesliga to date. Michael Zorc has labelled Akanji a "generally 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 the lowest misplaced pass percentage in the entire league (just 6%).
''I approach a lot of things in life with a relaxed attitude,'' says the newly-married Switzerland international. 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 away from the pitch, I’m not into taking risks. That just causes problems.''