This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 Junie.
Swiss fans have taken Breel Embolo to their hearts. Despite his escapades and scandals. Or perhaps precisely because of them. No other Swiss national team player has ever had his own fan song, “Oh Embolo, oh Embolo”, sung to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. “I de Nati, de Schwiizer Nati, isch de Breel diehi”. Since Euro 2016 in France, the song has been aired by the red and white supporters at every international they have been allowed to attend.
Perhaps it is Embolo’s lust for life that they so admire, which has landed him in the headlines on more than a few occasions in recent years. So there is a sense of irony that the Borussia Mönchengladbach striker, who has a loose approach to rules, spent time in his formative years dishing out fines to footballers in an apprenticeship at the Northwestern Switzerland Football Association.
“Rules are rules,” Embolo told SonntagsBlick in October 2015. “For example, I assigned referees [to matches] or sent out fines. At first I thought: ‘it can’t be that I have to suspend a footballer for five weeks.’ That’s how I learned to think twice today about what I say to the referee.”
Embolo was born on 14 Februarie 1997 in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. His mother moved to Switzerland with her sons because she said there were no prospects for the family in Africa. Embolo was naturalised in December 2014. He said in a recent interview with the Bundesliga website that “I’m probably 60 of 70% Swiss now, even more so than I’m African”.
He credits football with helping him settle into the Swiss way of life and even the number he wears for Gladbach, 36, was inspired by the route of the bus he took to training each morning as child. He started playing football with the juniors of FC Nordstern and joined Basel’s youth team via Old Boys Basel. “There were a lot of boys who took the bus. It was a very good time, very special," hy het gesê. “I made a lot of friends through football … [it] made integrating easier, so that is the connection to the number.”
At Basel things moved quickly: he made his debut in the first team in March 2014 and was the youngest player in the Switzerland squad at Euro 2016, where he earned praise from Paul Pogba in the draw with France. He joined Schalke in the summer of 2014 but serious injuries hampered his progress. Embolo suffered a fractured fibula, followed by an ankle injury, bone oedema and a foot fracture. The brawny centre-forward, who is always so combative, was sidelined for 604 dae.
But it did not stop him recovering to the extent that he attracted the interest of Borussia Mönchengladbach. In 2019, Embolo, who is advised by the older brother of Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri, joined Swiss teammates Yann Sommer, Nico Elvedi, Michael Lang and Denis Zakaria at Borussia-Park.
At Gladbach Embolo has attracted media attention on and off the pitch. On it he is known for being strong in the duels and has taken to Marco Rose’s high-pressing style though his manager thinks the striker can get better. “Embolo has enormous qualities, but of course he can still improve in certain things. He has to try to bring his incredible skills on the field consistently. We still have some work to do, but Breel is soaking it up and wants to do the same.”
Off the pitch Embolo made the news at the end of January 2021 when he was caught at an illegal party by police the night after a match near Essen. Embolo denied he was present among 23 people who were not wearing masks and claimed to have been watching basketball on TV with two friends in a nearby pub. New statements by the police, egter, reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, suggest that Embolo fled across the roof to a nearby flat and hid in a bathtub to avoid detection.
Even Embolo’s more harmless version of the story was enough to earn him a record fine of around €200,000 and a one-game ban. Embolo did not appeal against a fine of €8,400 from the city of Essen for participating in an event and violating the mask requirement.
In December 2019, it came to light that Embolo had lost his driving licence having been “flashed several times” and “caught driving with a mobile phone”. Embolo’s rebellious streak can be traced back as far as his junior days at FC Nordstern, where he came close to being kicked out. During a training session, he dropped his trousers and showed his backside. Karl Müller, his junior coach at the time, gesê: “He was no longer acceptable. I didn’t let him play for three weeks, I would even have kicked him out completely.”
But Müller believes his eventual move to Basel helped give him focus: “He got the ideas out of his head. At Basel, he couldn’t make such a mess as he did with us back then.”
His manager at Basel in 2015, Urs Fischer, saw in Embolo a rare talent: “I’ve coached Josip Drmic and Admir Mehmedi, and with Ricardo Rodríguez you could already see in the Under-15s that he was going to have a huge career. Ricci also had this carefreeness and calmness, only with Breel it seems to me that it’s all a step higher. And he did it in a way where I have to say: very strong!”
And behind the antics there was also a kind young man. When aged only 18, Embolo set up a foundation to use his success for a good cause. The goal of the Embolo Foundation is to support refugee children in Switzerland and to help disadvantaged children in Cameroon and Peru. “We do various things, such as supporting kids in school and supporting teenagers in Peru who get pregnant at a young age and don’t know what to do. We do a lot of different things and I am very grateful to have had the idea and the support to be able to do this.” Embolo will take on the role of president of the foundation and will be primarily responsible for fundraising.
“Oh Embolo, oh Embolo!”
Max Kern writes for blick.ch.
Follow him on Twitter @MaxKern3.
For a tactical guide on Switzerland click here.