Though the name Johan Vonlanthen sounds 100 per cent Swiss, the young right-winger is anything but, as FIFA.com discovered in an exclusive interview. “I was born in Santa Marta, Colombia, but I’ve lived in Switzerland since I was a youngster,” said the Swiss international, currently on loan at FC Zurich.
“I was born in Colombia 24 years ago, but when I was five my mum met a Swiss guy and we came to live here,” continued Vonlanthen, before outlining his early steps on a professional football ladder that has led to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “I started playing football in a little town called Flamat and later I joined [BSC] Young Boys. I made my first-division debut at 16 and became the youngest goalscorer in the league history.”
Torn between two nations
His rapid progress quickly caught the eye of Swiss national team set-up, though the player was initially uncertain whether or not to heed the call. “It was tricky because I was also interested in playing for Colombia. But I don’t think they ever realised I was eligible to play for them, perhaps because of my name! In the end, Swiss coach Kobi Kuhn put his faith in me and took me to [UEFA] EURO 2004, and now I’m very happy here.”
That may be the case, but Vonlanthen has certainly not forgotten his Cafetero roots, particularly when it comes to his footballing influences. A fan of Barranquilla outfit Junior, his all-time hero is none other than iconic Colombian string-puller Carlos Valderrama. “I saw him play in Santa Marta when I was a boy, and years later I met him personally. He’s a great person, a real idol in Colombia. He’s very down-to-earth and is always happy to give advice.”
“What took most getting used to was the punctuality (in Colombia),” he said, touching on just one of the cultural differences between the country of his birth and his adopted homeland. “I remember once when I was on holiday in Santa Marta and I was invited to an event. So there I was, pressuring my family and everyone to arrive on time and there was nobody there! The first person to arrive turned up 30 minutes later!”
And does he feel his style of play is more European or South American? “I think that’s what has set me apart a bit here in Switzerland. I like having the ball and doing things with a flourish. Though over here I’ve learned to play more for the team and leave the fancy stuff to one side, I’ve not lost all my Latin style.”
History on the horizon
Vonlanthen should therefore be right at home in Group H at South Africa 2010, where Switzerland will battle it out for a Round of 16 berth against Spain, Honduras and Chile. “I think that Spain are a class apart. Of course we shouldn’t be in awe of them, but they’ve got incredible players who are a notch above the rest in our group. Chile and Honduras are very dangerous, but if we can keep showing the attitude we’ve shown so far I think we can beat them,” added the former PSV Eindhoven and Red Bull Salzburg wide-man.
Vonlanthen is also full of praise for current Swiss supremo Ottmar Hitzfeld, who presided over the Helvetians’ successful qualifying campaign. “He’s instilled the mentality that we shouldn’t be afraid of anyone. That used to happen to us a lot before, we’d come up against France or Italy and we’d say ‘uh oh, we’re the little Swiss’. All that changed once he arrived and that’s made the national team very strong.”
Germany 2006 remains a major regret. “I got injured on the first day of training. I was playing well and was in the coach’s plans for the competition but I couldn’t go,” said Vonlanthen, when quizzed on missing out on the tournament. “That’s why I’m so motivated to play at the 2010 finals and really want to put in a great performance.”