Manuel Akanji might have represented Nigeria in the Russia 2018 World Cup but in reality the Borussia Dortmund’s rising star started all Switzerland’s four matches in the tournament.
And the 6ft 1in centre-back, who was born to a Nigerian father and a Swiss mother, says is happy he was considered good enough to play for the Red Crosses and has no regrets not playing for the Super Eagles.
Akanji, who joined German Bundesliga giants Dortmund from Swiss side Basel in deal reportedly worth €22m in January and went on to tie down a starting role in Michael Zorc’s team, was tipped to announce himself on the world stage in Russia and he passed the test with aplomb.
In fact, the 22-year-old was instrumental in the Swiss reaching the second round of Russia 2018, coming out of their group with Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica losing no game.
Switzerland were sent packing the tournament by Sweden’s the 66th minute goal through one of Europe’s much sought-after attacker in the summer transfer market Emil Forsberg on Tuesday.
Incidentally the RB Leipzig winger’s thunderous shot deflected off Akanji and past goalkeeper Yann Sommer to send Blagult (The Blue-Yellow) to their first quarterfinal since their third-place finish at the USA ’94 World Cup.
Akanji, who has been hailed as a modern day defender, brought a level of composure, strength and athleticism to the Swiss defence, and was never afraid to launch attacks. His quality helped in the fixtures against Brazil and Serbia.
Although the versatile player, who is proficient with both feet, says he is say he is unhappy about Switzerland’s early exit from the tournament, he is proud of the team and not thinking about Nigeria.
“Nigeria never called me to play (for the Eagles). There was no question where I should play because Switzerland asked me if I wanted to play for them. I heard nothing from Nigeria. So it was my decision,” Akanji, who suffered a career-threatening injury after joining Swiss powerhouse Basel from Winterthur in 2015, told reporters during a post-match interview after Switzerland’s defeat by Sweden at Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Asked if he would have accepted to play for the Eagles, the pacey defender said, “I don’t know, because they never (Nigeria) called me.
“I don’t think I have any regrets playing for Switzerland (at Russia 2018). Switzerland got to the second round and Nigeria didn’t.”
Akanji, who has been tipped to blossom into a world-class centre-back, said his parents never talked to him about playing for Nigeria.
He said, “My parents didn’t talk to me about which country to play for or which country I should not play for. They keep supporting me.”
Akanji, who says he doesn’t understand Yoruba, expressed his disappointment with his team’s defeat by Sweden.
He said, “It’s difficult. We tried everything to win. It hurts that I deflected the ball into the net.
“I tried to stop the ball because it came in my direction. It was a hot shot. Some of my teammates came to me after the game that ‘you played a good tournament’. Of course it was nice how they tried to cheer me up. Gelson (Fernandes) told me it was not my last World Cup.”
Akanji, who featured for Switzerland at U-20 and U-21 level before playing for the seniors, admits he still has a lot about the game, promising to work word to get to the top.
With Greece defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos leaving Dortmund for Arsenal this week, Signal Iduna Park boss Zorc is expected to build his defence around Akanji, who was bought to replace former Barcelona centre-back Marc Bartra, who left for Real Betis.
Meanwhile, former Manchester United star Phil Neville has heaped praise on Akanji, saying the youngster has all the capabilities to become an exceptional modern day defender.
“I think this boy could be absolutely special. A modern day defender,” the former England player told BBC.