While Switzerland may be a relatively small nation in the heart of Europe, it has become renowned for a youth development system that has produced real gems such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka in recent years. La Nati’s latest promising young talent is Breel Embolo. Born in Cameroon, he moved to Switzerland with his mother as a child and played for several youth clubs in Basel from the age of nine - before being signed by FC Basel as a 13-year-old in 2010.
"The national team and Switzerland are everything to me," the now 19-year-old said in an interview with FIFA.com. "I came here from Cameroon at the age of five and completed all my schooling and football development here. Switzerland took me in when I was just ‘Breel’ and made me into ‘Breel Embolo’.”
The fact that this striker with the cheeky smile rarely misses an opportunity to express his gratitude for his adopted homeland may be part of the reason why Swiss fans were so quick to take him into their hearts and dedicate a chant to him. From Basel to Bern, Zurich to St Gallen, the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ rings out with the words: "I dr Nati, dr Schwizer Nati, do isch dr Breel dehei – Oh Embolo, Oh Embolo…" (“In La Nati, the Swiss Nati, Breel is here tonight – Oh Embolo, Oh Embolo…”).
The youngster cannot help but laugh when asked about this phenomenon, even briefly attempting his own rendition of the song. "It’s wonderful to have such amazing fans who stand behind us and give so much for us," he said. "That’s part of what makes Switzerland so special – that positive attitude and solidarity. Hopefully that will continue long into the future, as it’s only together that we’ll achieve anything."
Embolo took part in his first major international tournament this year at UEFA EURO 2016 in France, where he featured in all four of La Nati’s matches but was unable to prevent them from losing to Poland on penalties in the last 16. "I don’t think we played the way we really wanted to going forward, even though we created plenty of chances, played very attacking football and often dominated," he explained. "We had one or two opportunities to score that we really should have converted. Unfortunately we often lacked that little bit of luck."
While Embolo was unable to find the target during this summer’s continental showpiece, several of Europe’s big clubs showed an interest in signing the Swiss international both before and after the tournament. His eventual decision to embark on the next stage of his career with Bundesliga side Schalke surprised many observers. "Moving to Schalke is perfect for me," he explained.
"I’ve always wanted to play in the Bundesliga; for me it’s the best league in the world. Here in Switzerland we always look up to the Germans a little," the striker continued. "In Schalke I found a top club who really wanted me. That gives me the kind of confidence I already had at Basel. I also think the club has a very friendly atmosphere. It was important for me to make the right step, have the right attitude and get the right motivation."
Embolo hopes that the high level of competition he now encounters both in training and league matches will help him to make the next few important strides in his development. "This new club certainly offers more games at a high level," he said, "But it also gives me the opportunity to learn and benefit so much from world-class players like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. However, the most important thing is that I can develop as a player. I’m only 19 and want to keep improving. I can already feel that happening after only a few weeks at Schalke."
Although he was still being used as the ace up coach Vladimir Petkovic’s sleeve at this year’s EURO, the youngster will soon have to deal with ever-increasing expectations. Before long, Switzerland will be looking to Embolo to help spearhead their attack and score important goals. "I’m quite happy to take on the role of main striker," he said. "It’s what I’ve been dreaming of for years. After all, the goal’s always the same size."
While this promising young striker will ideally begin growing into this role as Switzerland seek to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, I Rossocrociati face two challenging matches at the start of their campaign. Embolo’s home city of Basel will host European champions Portugal this Tuesday before the team travel to Hungary for their second game a month later. "It’ll be particularly special for me as I spent eight years playing at Basel’s St Jakob Park," the 19-year-old said.
"I think it’ll be a top game that we can really look forward to. The first few matches are always tough, but they’re also the most important. After that you can plan better and see where you stand. If you’ve already managed to get some positive results in the opening games, it gives you the confidence you need, gives your opponents food for thought and forces them to react."
Almost two years from now, Embolo hopes to fulfil his dream of playing in his first World Cup. "As a kid you obviously watch more World Cup games than matches at the EUROs because the World Cup is bigger with more teams from every corner of the globe," he explained. "It’s definitely another step up, which makes it all the more exciting. Playing at a World Cup has always been a big dream of mine and now I have the chance to make it a reality." It may well be that Switzerland have already found the player to solve their goalscoring problems.