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The maths genius who became a footballer: Akanji’s defensive nous helps Switzerland get to the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022

Switzerland is one of the most consistent teams in the past decade in international football, making it out from the group phase at the UEFA EURO and at the FIFA World Cup tournaments. Their predicament has been relying on their strong defence to stop their opponents and secure wins via counterattacks, with their pacy wingers and strikers delivering heavy blows.

Since Vladimir Petkovic was replaced by Murat Yakin, Switzerland changed their style, becoming more vertical and more unpredictable, but relying again and again on their defensive system, anchored in the last five years by Manuel Akanji, a defensive mainstay, which has grown during the past seasons and switched from German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund to English champions Manchester City.

While Akanji could do nothing to prevent the elimination at Qatar 2022, after a 6-1 drubbing from Portugal in the Round of 16, he is there to stay, as the 27-year-old defender is in the form of his life.

Akanji, who has a Nigerian father and a Swiss mother, was born in Neftenbach, Switzerland, with his African heritage also preserved by his middle name, “Obafemi”, which means “beloved of the king”, the main reason why he has a crown tattooed on his left forearm. He was also an avid follower of sports, with his father playing football and tennis, while his mother played tennis.

“I often watched my father play football until I wanted to try it myself. It was the same with other sports. I got into tennis through my parents and athletics through Michelle. So I did all three things at the same time. When I switched to FC Winterthur at the age of eleven and had more training sessions than before at FC Wiesendangen, it was clear that I could only do two sports. That’s when I stopped athletics. When football training got even more intense, I also gave up tennis. Football has always been the most fun for me,” said Akanji in an interview for “Goal”

His first steps in football were at the second-league side Winterthur, but in 2015, he made the switch to Swiss powerhouse FC Basel, where he became one of the best players in the domestic league. This is why the interest piqued in him, with his Nigerian heritage making Akanji an interesting proposition for Nigeria’s national team.

“Nigeria never called me to play for them. There was no question whether I should play because Switzerland asked me if I wanted to play for them. I heard nothing from Nigeria. So it was my decision,” said Akanji.

Would have he liked to play for the “Super Eagles”?

“I don’t know, because Nigeria never called me. I don’t think I have any regrets playing for Switzerland,” added the central defender.

Akanji did represent Switzerland at the Under-20 and Under-21 levels in 2014 and 2015 and made his big break in 2017, when he broke his duck for the senior national team. One year later, Akanji made the move to Borussia Dortmund, for a reported fee of $20 million.

It was there where he became viral, by doing difficult arithmetic calculations on the spot, in a video where he was asked to add, subtract or multiply numbers.

“Even as a child I was good with numbers and mental arithmetic, I enjoyed it. If there was a sign somewhere with five different numbers, I would use it to create all sorts of arithmetic problems. It was the same with number plates on cars, for example. And so I got better and better over time. I don’t do that anymore, but it’s all still in my head. I know it by heart. From fourth to sixth grade I also had a teacher who regularly held tournaments in mental arithmetic – knockout system. This competition gave me additional motivation. I was pretty good then and won almost every time,” said Akanji.

With his family insisting on completing his education, he also had an apprenticeship as a businessman in Switzerland, combining school with football. And it worked out pretty well. Eventually, football got the best of Akanji, who started playing as a striker and then moved to central defence.

“In my childhood and adolescence, football was the main thing on my mind. My role models were related to my position. My first role model was Raul. At that time I was still playing offensively and was a fan of Real Madrid. Besides Real, Manchester United was my favorite club. At some point it was Cristiano Ronaldo. He really impressed me with his performance. I didn’t become a defense attorney until I was about 17 years old. Of course there were a lot of good defenders back then, but I didn’t have a clear role model anymore at that time. Sergio Ramos would come to mind the most,” said Akanji in an interview for “Goal”.

Now, at 27 years old, the central defender moved to Manchester City, where he became an important cog in Pep Guardiola’s system. This is not maths, but football and he looks to enjoy it and be pretty good at it.

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